What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a liver disease that is caused by the hepatitis C virus. There are several types of hepatitis C viruses. Hepatitis C is one type of hepatitis.
Hepatitis is a redness and swelling (inflammation) of the liver that sometimes causes lasting damage. The liver isn’t able to work the way it should.
Hepatitis C can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic):
- Acute hepatitis C. When people first get hepatitis C, this a brief infection that lasts 6 months or less. Some people are able to fight the infection at this stage and become cured. But most people go on to develop a chronic infection where the virus remains in their body.
- Chronic hepatitis C. This is a long-lasting infection that happens when your body can’t get rid of the virus. It causes long-term liver damage.
It is rare to recover from hepatitis C infection, but some people are able to clear the virus from their body. Most people with hepatitis C have the virus for the rest of their life. Most people with hepatitis C have no or only mild symptoms, so they don’t always know they are infected.
If you were born between 1945 and 1965, talk with your healthcare provider about getting tested for hepatitis C. The CDC recommends that all people in this age group get tested.
What causes hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is caused by infection from the hepatitis C virus. Like other viruses, hepatitis C is passed from person to person. This happens when you have contact with an infected person’s blood.
You may get the virus if you:
- Share needles used for illegal drugs
- Share drug-snorting equipment
- Have unprotected sex with someone who has hepatitis C
- Get a tattoo with infected equipment
Babies may also get the disease if their mother has the hepatitis C virus.
Who is at risk for hepatitis C?
Anyone can get hepatitis C by having contact with the blood of someone who is infected with the virus.
But some people are at higher risk for the disease. They include:
- Children born to mothers who are infected with hepatitis C
- People who have jobs that involve contact with human blood, body fluids, or needles
- People who have a blood-clotting disorder such as hemophilia, and received clotting factors before 1987
- People who need dialysis treatment for kidney failure
- People who had blood transfusions, blood products, or organ transplants before the early 1990s
- People who take IV or intravenous drugs
- People who have unprotected heterosexual or homosexual sex
- People with HIV
- People in prison
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Many people with hepatitis C don’t know they have it. In most cases people who are infected with hepatitis C may not show any symptoms for several years.
It is still possible to pass the virus to someone else if you have hepatitis C but do not have any symptoms.
Each person’s symptoms may vary. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pain
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Dark yellow urine
- Light-colored stools
- Muscle and joint pain
Hepatitis C symptoms may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider to be sure.
How is hepatitis C diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will give you a physical exam and ask about your past health. He or she will also do a blood test to see if you have hepatitis C.
If your provider thinks you have long-term (chronic) hepatitis C, he or she may do other tests to see how well your liver is working. These tests may include:
- More blood tests
- Special ultrasound or other imaging test
- Liver biopsy. For this, the doctor takes a small tissue sample from your liver. The sample is checked under a microscope to see what type of liver disease you have and how severe it is.