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Living with hepatitis C: what are the health risks?

Medically reviewed by Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD on February 3, 2020. Written by Libby Pellegrini. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Hepatitis C is a virus that can spread through exposure to infected blood and sexual contact. For some people, a hepatitis C infection will cause a short-lived infection, coming and going on its own, without any long-term consequences. However, for 75-85% of the people who contract hepatitis C, the virus causes a lifelong infection that could lead to liver scarring (also known as cirrhosis), liver cancer, and liver failure.

Because hepatitis C infections don’t always come with immediate symptoms, many people living with hepatitis C are unaware that they are infected—and don’t get prompt treatment.

If you’re concerned about hepatitis C for yourself or a loved one, continue reading to learn more about risk factors, health complications associated with living with hepatitis C when it isn’t treated promptly, and more. (To discreetly test for hepatitis C from the comfort of your home, take the Everlywell at-home Hepatitis C Test.)

What causes a hepatitis C infection?

A hepatitis C infection is usually caused by exposure to blood that’s been infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Exposure to hepatitis C (or “hep C”) can occur in several different ways, but these are some of the most common:

  • Intravenous drug use with needle sharing
  • A healthcare-associated needle stick injury
  • A pregnant woman with the virus passing it to her unborn baby
  • Getting a tattoo or piercing in a setting where needles may be reused or improperly sterilized
  • Sharing an item that has come into contact with someone else’s blood (like a toothbrush or razor)
  • Having sexual contact with someone who has hepatitis C
  • Receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992 (after 1992, blood products in the United States have been screened for hepatitis C)

Additionally, you’re at a particularly high risk of hepatitis C—as well as related complications—if you were born sometime in 1945–1965. It’s estimated that, among people born during these years, 1 in 30 have the hepatitis C virus—but most aren’t aware they’re infected. This highlights the importance of testing for hepatitis C—sooner rather than later.


Check for hepatitis C from the privacy and convenience of home with our at-home Hepatitis C Test.


Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, can lead to decreased liver function. It is the cumulative damage inflicted by liver inflammation, and—in people with hepatitis C—it typically develops over the course of 20 to 30 years. Up to 20% of people with chronic hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis. Of these, up to 6 percent will go into liver failure, and up to 5 percent will develop a type of liver cancer known as hepatocellular carcinoma.

Liver cancer

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a liver cancer most commonly caused by infection with the hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus. It represents the second leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide.

Hepatitis B

Like hepatitis C, the hepatitis B virus is a liver infection that can cause an acute or chronic illness. It can be contracted through the same modes of blood transmission, maternal-to-fetus transmission, and sexual contact. Some people can harbor both the hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses; the rate of co-infection is 1.4% in the United States. Unlike hepatitis C, a vaccine is available for hepatitis B.

HIV

People with HIV—which stands for “human immunodeficiency virus”—are more likely to contract hepatitis C and are also more likely to have an acute hepatitis infection turn into a chronic infection. Additionally, the liver inflammation and scarring in a person who is co-infected with both hepatitis C and HIV may progress more rapidly.

Seeking medical treatment for hepatitis C

If you suspect that you have a hepatitis C virus infection, it’s important to get tested. In fact, the CDC recommends that all adults age 18+ receive screening for hepatitis C at least once in their life.


At-home Hepatitis C Test


If you’re diagnosed with hepatitis C, your healthcare provider may run more tests to check for other related conditions, such as hepatitis B and HIV. You may have a blood or imaging test to assess the functional status of your liver. Your healthcare provider may also do a blood test of your “viral load,” which is a way to measure the amount of virus that you have in your body. These evaluations can guide the kind of medical treatment you will receive.

Fortunately, living with hepatitis C in today’s world means more highly effective treatments compared to therapies used in past decades. That’s largely thanks to a class of drugs known as direct-acting antivirals (DAAs), which—in many cases—can cure someone of the virus in 8–12 weeks.

Common questions about living with hepatitis C

How long can someone live with hepatitis C?

A “hep C” life expectancy depends on a number of factors, including whether the virus has been detected in the first place and the amount of liver damage that the virus has caused. If you have a significant amount of liver damage, you are at risk of liver failure and may require a liver transplant, regardless of whether or not the virus is still present in your body.

What is the prognosis of hepatitis C?

The prognosis of hepatitis C is significantly better if it’s detected and treated early, as this decreases the chances of permanent damage being done to the liver. If you think you may have hepatitis C, be sure to get tested so that you can seek medical attention and receive treatment as soon as possible (if you receive a positive result). You can test discreetly from the comfort of your own home using the Everlywell at-home Hepatitis C Test.


References

1. Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for the Public. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

2. Hepatitis C. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

3. CDC Now Recommends All Baby Boomers Receive One-Time Hepatitis C Test. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

4. Ringelhan M, McKeating JA, Protzer U. Viral hepatitis and liver cancer. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2017;372(1732):20160274. doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.

5. Mavilia MG, Wu GY. HBV-HCV Coinfection: Viral Interactions, Management, and Viral Reactivation. J Clin Transl Hepatol. 2018;6(3):296-305. doi:10.14218/JCTH.2018.

6. Maier I, Wu GY. Hepatitis C and HIV co-infection: a review. World J Gastroenterol. 2002;8(4):577-579. doi:10.3748/wjg.v8.i4.577

7. Testing Recommendations for Hepatitis C Virus Infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

8. CDC Recommendations for Hepatitis C Screening Among Adults — United States, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.