Frequently Asked Questions About Hepatitis C
You’ve probably heard of hepatitis C, but you may not know how it’s spread or what you can do to protect yourself. These frequently asked questions cover the basics of hepatitis C.
What Is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a type of liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV infection can be acute or chronic. Acute hepatitis C lasts for six months or less. Chronic hepatitis C can last for the rest of your life.
In most cases, acute hepatitis C leads to chronic hepatitis C. But in some cases, people with acute hepatitis C clear the virus from their bodies without any treatment. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why this happens.
How Does Someone Get Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is contagious. It is spread when blood from an infected person enters the body of a person not infected. Most people get hepatitis C from sharing needles to inject drugs. Before 1992, hepatitis C was also spread through organ transplants and blood transfusions.
Less often, hepatitis C is spread through sex or sharing personal care items, such as razors or toothbrushes that may have blood on them. Sometimes it spreads from a mother with hepatitis C to her baby during birth, but this is rare.
What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?
Most people have no symptoms, so you can have the virus for many years without feeling sick. If you do have symptoms, they most often occur 6 to 7 weeks after you’re exposed to the virus. But you can have symptoms from 2 weeks to 6 months after exposure. Symptoms can include:
- Bowel movements that are clay-colored or gray-colored
- Dark-colored urine
- Jaundice (yellow-colored eyes or skin)
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle pain
- Stomach pain
How Do I Find Out If I Have Hepatitis C?
The only way to learn if you have hepatitis C is to get tested for the virus. The screening test is called a hepatitis C antibody test. It’s not part of a normal checkup, so you have to ask your doctor for it.
Who Should Get Tested?
You should get tested if you:
- Are exposed to blood at your job, such as getting stuck with a needle
- Are on hemodialysis for kidney disease
- Have ever injected drugs
- Have HIV or AIDS
- Have liver disease or abnormal liver tests
- Received a blood transfusion or organ donation before 1992
- Were born between 1945 and 1965
- Were born to a mother who had hepatitis C
How Long Can You Have Hepatitis C and Not Know It?
Some people have hepatitis C for decades without knowing it. But even if you don’t have symptoms, hepatitis C can still damage your liver. The longer you have it, the more likely it will cause liver damage or liver cancer. That’s why it’s important to get tested if you’re at risk.
How Serious Is Hepatitis C?
Chronic hepatitis C is a serious condition that can cause liver damage, liver failure, and liver cancer. But once you know you have hepatitis C, you can take steps to help keep your liver healthy and live longer without a disabling illness.
Are There Treatments?
Highly effective medical treatment is available today to treat HCV infection. Your doctor will request additional lab studies to customize your treatment. Your doctor will want to know the following details:
- Your specific HCV genotype (1a, 1b, 2-6)
- Whether you have ever been treated for HCV in the past
- The virus load in your blood
- Whether you have kidney or liver disease
For example, most treatment people who have not been treated for HCV genotype 1 can get rid of the infection following an 12-week course of a once-a-day combination of the antiviral medications ledipasvir and sofosbuvir (Harvoni). Many other effective therapies are now available that may not expose the individual to the harmful side effects of interferon, a frequently-used treatment for HCV.
Is There a Vaccine for Hepatitis C?
Researchers are actively looking to develop a vaccine, but one doesn’t exist yet. HCV has several unique properties that make it difficult to create a vaccine. At this time, prevention of HCV infection mainly relies on not sharing needles with someone who is infected or at risk of being infected, and taking precautions for accidental needle sticks in the healthcare setting.