Illness & Conditions - Health Conditions
What is hepatitis C?
Many people don't know that they have hepatitis C until they already have some liver damage. This can take many years. Some people who get hepatitis C have it for a short time and then get better. This is called acute hepatitis C. But most people who are infected with the virus go on to develop long-term, or chronic, hepatitis C.
Although hepatitis C can be very serious, most people can manage the disease and lead active, full lives.
What causes hepatitis C infection?
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus. It is spread by contact with an infected person's blood.
You can get hepatitis C if:
In rare cases, a mother with hepatitis C spreads the virus to her baby at birth, or a health care worker is accidentally exposed to blood that is infected with hepatitis C.
Experts aren't sure if you can get hepatitis C through sexual contact. If there is a risk of getting the virus through sexual contact, it is very small. The risk is higher if you have many sex partners.
You cannot get hepatitis C from casual contact such as hugging, kissing, sneezing, coughing, or sharing food or drink.
What are the symptoms?
Most people have no symptoms when they are first infected with the hepatitis C virus. If you do develop symptoms, they may include:
Most people go on to develop chronic hepatitis C but still don't have symptoms. This makes it common for people to have hepatitis C for 15 years or longer before it is diagnosed.
How is hepatitis C diagnosed?
Many people find out by accident that they have the virus. They find out when their blood is tested before a blood donation or as part of a routine checkup. Often people with hepatitis C have high levels of liver enzymes in their blood.
If your doctor thinks you may have hepatitis C, he or she will talk to you about having a blood test. If the test shows hepatitis C antibodies , then you have had hepatitis C at some point. A second test can tell if you have hepatitis C now.
When blood tests show that you have hepatitis C, you may need a liver biopsy to see if the virus has caused scarring in your liver. During a liver biopsy, a doctor will insert a needle between your ribs to collect a small sample of liver tissue to look at under a microscope.
Some people prefer to find out on their own if they have been exposed to hepatitis C. You can buy a home test called a Home Access Hepatitis C Check kit at most drugstores. If the test shows that you have been exposed to the virus in the past, be sure to talk to your doctor to find out if you have the virus now.
How is it treated?
You and your doctor need to decide if you should take antiviral medicine to treat hepatitis C. It may not be right for everyone. If your liver damage is mild, you may not need medicine.
If you do take medicine, the best treatment is a combination of medicines that fight infection. The medicines used include peginterferon, ribavirin, and boceprevir or telaprevir. How well these medicines work depends on how damaged your liver is, how much virus you have in your liver, and what type of hepatitis C you have.
Taking care of yourself is an important part of the treatment for hepatitis C. Some people with hepatitis C don't notice a change in the way they feel. Others feel tired, sick, or depressed. You may feel better if you exercise and eat healthy foods. To help prevent further liver damage, avoid alcohol and illegal drugs and certain medicines that can be hard on your liver.
Frequently Asked Questions
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Hepatitis C is a liver disease that is caused by infection with the hepatitis C virus, a virus that lives in your liver cells.
How it spreads
You cannot get hepatitis C from casual contact such as hugging, kissing, sneezing, coughing, or sharing food or water with someone. You can get hepatitis C if you come into contact with the blood of someone who has hepatitis C.
The most common way to get hepatitis C is by sharing needles and other equipment (such as cotton, spoons, and water) used to inject illegal drugs.
Before 1992, people could get hepatitis C through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Since 1992, all donated blood and organs are screened for hepatitis C, so it is now rare to get the virus this way.
In rare cases, a mother with hepatitis C spreads the virus to her baby at birth, or a health care worker is accidentally exposed to blood that is infected with hepatitis C.
Experts aren't sure whether you can get hepatitis C through sexual contact. If there is a risk of getting the virus through sexual contact, it is very small. The risk is higher if you have many sex partners.
If you live with someone who has hepatitis C or you know someone who has hepatitis C, you generally don't need to worry about getting the disease from that person. You can help protect yourself by not sharing anything that may have blood on it, such as razors, toothbrushes, and nail clippers.
Most people who are infected with hepatitis C—even people who have been infected for a while—usually don't have symptoms.
If symptoms do develop, they may include:
A hepatitis C infection can cause damage to your liver ( cirrhosis ). If you develop cirrhosis, you may have:
Contagious and incubation periods
The incubation period—the time it takes for symptoms to appear after the hepatitis C virus has entered your body—is from 2 weeks to 6 months.
But you can spread the virus to someone else at any time after you are infected, even if you don't have symptoms.
There are two phases of hepatitis C. The first form is called acute hepatitis C. It means that you recently became infected with the virus. The second form is called chronic hepatitis C. It which means that you have had an infection for more than 6 months.
Right after you are infected with hepatitis C, you enter the acute stage. Some people fight off the virus and never have any liver problems. But up to 85% of people who are infected will go on to have chronic hepatitis C. 1
Most people have no symptoms right after they have been infected with hepatitis C. Your symptoms may be blamed on the flu . Since any symptoms are likely to go away in a few weeks, you may not know you have hepatitis C for a long time.
If you have an obvious symptom of hepatitis C, such as jaundice , or if you know you have been exposed to the blood of someone who has hepatitis C, you should be tested for hepatitis C virus infection.
Long-term hepatitis C often causes tiny scars in your liver. If you have a lot of these scars, it becomes hard for your liver to work well. About 25% of people who develop chronic hepatitis C eventually have more serious liver problems such as cirrhosis or liver cancer, usually over a period of 20 or more years. 2
Certain things may help predict your risk for severe liver damage, such as how much alcohol you drink and the age when you were infected.
If the infection becomes so severe that your liver can no longer function (end-stage liver failure), having a liver transplant may be the only way to extend your life.
What Increases Your Risk
Certain things may increase your risk of becoming infected with the hepatitis C virus. Just because you are at risk for getting hepatitis C does not mean that you have the virus.
Needle use or accidental stick
You can get hepatitis C from:
Other possible risks
Sometimes people get hepatitis C from:
Experts are not sure if you can get hepatitis C through sexual contact. If there is a risk of getting the virus through sexual contact, it is very small. The risk is higher if you have many sex partners.
When To Call a Doctor
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you have hepatitis C and you:
Call your doctor if:
Who to see
The following health professionals can diagnose hepatitis C:
The following specialists also can diagnose the disease and provide further care:
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Exams and Tests
Because many people don't have symptoms, it's common for people to have hepatitis C for 15 years or longer before it is diagnosed. Many people don't find out that they have the virus until they are tested for some other reason, such as when donating blood.
You should be tested for hepatitis C if you:
Before you have tests, your doctor will probably talk to you about the pros and cons of testing for hepatitis C so that you understand what having the virus means.
First exam at the doctor's office
Your doctor will:
Tests for the hepatitis C virus
If your doctor thinks that you may have hepatitis C, he or she may order:
Home testing for hepatitis C
Some people prefer to find out on their own whether they have been exposed to hepatitis C. In most drugstores you can buy a home test called the Home Access Hepatitis C Check kit. If test results show that you have been exposed to the virus, it is important to discuss these results with your doctor and to find out if you are infected with the virus now.
Tests for liver problems
To check how well your liver is working, you may have:
If you have a hepatitis C virus test, you may also get tested for HIV .
You may or may not receive treatment for hepatitis C, depending on:
Treatment isn't always an option, because the medicines used to treat hepatitis C have serious side effects, are expensive, and don't work for everyone.
Being diagnosed with hepatitis C can change your life. You may need help and support to cope with the illness. For more information, see Home Treatment.
Treatment of short-term (acute) hepatitis C
Most people who have acute hepatitis C don't get treated, because they don't know that they have the virus.
If a person knows that he or she may have been exposed to the virus—such as a health care worker who is stuck by a needle—acute hepatitis C can be found early. Most people who are known to have an acute hepatitis C infection get treated with medicine. In these cases, treatment may help prevent long-term (chronic) infection, although there is still some debate over when to begin treatment and how long to treat acute hepatitis C. 3
Treatment of long-term (chronic) hepatitis C
It is common for people to live with hepatitis C for years without knowing they have it, because they do not have symptoms. So most people diagnosed with hepatitis C find out that they already have long-term, chronic infection.
If your blood tests and liver biopsy show that you have chronic infection but no damage to your liver, you may not need treatment. If you do have some liver damage, you may be treated with a combination of medicines that fight the viral infection.
Whether or not you take medicines to treat hepatitis C, you will need to have routine blood tests to help your doctor know how well your liver is working.
If you decide not to be treated with medicines, your doctor will want to watch you closely and may want to do a liver biopsy every 4 or 5 years to check for damage in your liver.
Some people who at first decide not to have treatment later decide they want to have it.
The medicines usually used to treat hepatitis C are interferons combined with ribavirin plus a protease inhibitor such as boceprevir (Victrelis) or telaprevir (Incivek). They are used for 6 months to a year and help your body get rid of the virus.
Your doctor can help you decide whether medicines are right for you.
Treatment of relapse or nonresponse
Sometimes you can take different medicine if your first round of treatment didn't work very well. The decision to try treatment again is based on several things including how well you tolerated the first treatment and how well the first round of treatment worked. Talk to your doctor about whether you might try medicines again.
Treatment if the condition gets worse
Severe liver damage caused by chronic hepatitis C usually takes 20 or more years to develop.
If your hepatitis C continues to get worse, it can cause your liver to stop working, a condition called end-stage liver failure. In this case, a liver transplant may be the only way to extend your life. But if you are drinking alcohol, are sharing needles to inject drugs, or have severe depression or certain other mental illnesses, liver transplant may not be an option.
Most people with chronic hepatitis C will not die from the disease. But 1 to 5 out of 100 people with severe liver damage from chronic hepatitis C will die because of the virus. 4 Even if a liver transplant is done as a last possible treatment, there can be complications that lead to death. For more information about decisions to help prepare for death and dying, see the topic Care at the End of Life.
What to think about
Researchers are working to develop other treatments, including gene therapy and medicines that help control the immune system.
There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. But you can reduce your risk of becoming infected:
If you have hepatitis C, you can help prevent spreading it to others:
Breast-feeding mothers who have hepatitis C can continue to breast-feed their babies, because hepatitis C cannot be spread through breast milk. If you are breast-feeding, try to avoid having cracked nipples, which might pose a risk of spreading the virus to your baby.
Some people who have hepatitis C don't notice a big difference in the way they feel. Others feel tired, sick, or depressed. The following are steps you can take at home that may help you feel better both physically and emotionally.
It is very common to feel tired if you have hepatitis C. If you feel tired, give yourself permission to do less and rest more. If possible, ask others to help out around your home or ask your employer for a shorter or more flexible work schedule.
Exercise if you feel up to it. Aerobic exercise can help you have more energy and may also improve depression. It is best to avoid any strenuous activities on the day after you receive peginterferon. 5
Eat regular, nutritious meals
Sometimes people with hepatitis C have a hard time eating. You may have no appetite, feel nauseated, or have different tastes than you are used to. Even if you don't feel like eating, it's very important to eat small meals throughout the day. Some people have nausea in the afternoon. If this happens to you, try to eat a big, nutritious meal in the morning.
If you have cirrhosis, it may not be a good idea to eat salty foods or foods that are high in protein. If you want to know more about which foods to avoid and which foods are good to eat, ask your doctor about meeting with a registered dietitian to discuss a healthy eating plan.
Avoid alcohol and drugs
One of the most important jobs of your liver is to break down drugs and alcohol. If you have hepatitis C, one of the best things you can do is to avoid substances that may harm your liver, such as alcohol and illegal drugs. If you have cirrhosis, you also may need to avoid certain medicines.
If you use illegal drugs or drink alcohol, it is important to stop. Being honest with your doctor about your drug and alcohol use will help you deal with any substance abuse problems. If you don't feel that you can talk openly with your doctor, you may want to find a doctor you feel more comfortable with. If you want to stop using drugs or alcohol and need help to do so, ask your doctor or someone else you trust about drug and alcohol treatment options.
Because many medicines can stress your liver, talk to your doctor before you take any prescription or over-the-counter medicines. This includes herbal remedies as well.
If you have itchy skin, ask your doctor about taking nonprescription medicines, such as diphenhydramine (for example, Benadryl) or chlorpheniramine (for example, Chlor-Trimeton), to relieve itching. If you do take these medicines, be sure to follow the instructions and to stop using the medicine if you have any side effects.
Seek help for depression
You may feel angry or depressed about having to live with a long-term, serious disease. You may have a hard time knowing how to tell other people that you have the virus. It can be helpful to talk with a social worker or counselor about what having the disease means to you. You also may want to find a support group for people with hepatitis C. If you don't have a support group in your area, there are several on the Internet.
Depression may develop in anyone who has a long-term illness. It also can be a side effect of antiviral medicines for hepatitis C. If you are feeling depressed, talk to your doctor about antidepressant medicines and/or counseling. For more information, see the topic Depression.
Learn about the disease
Learning about hepatitis C may help you feel more in control of the disease. The more you understand, the better you can make decisions about treatment and lifestyle changes that may help you feel better, both physically and emotionally.
Most people who are known to have an acute hepatitis C infection get treated with antiviral medicine. Treatment for acute hepatitis C may help prevent long-term (chronic) infection, although there is still some debate over when to begin treatment and how long to treat acute hepatitis C. 3
Antiviral medicines also are used to treat long-term (chronic) hepatitis C. These medicines can help prevent the hepatitis C virus from damaging your liver.
Sometimes treatment doesn't permanently lower the amount of virus in your blood. But some studies have shown that treatment may still reduce scarring in your liver, which can lower your chances of developing cirrhosis and liver cancer. 6, 1
Interferons combined with ribavirin are used to help your body get rid of the virus. These medicines may be combined with a protease inhibitor (such as boceprevir or telaprevir) to treat long-term (chronic) hepatitis C.
What to think about
Medicines to treat hepatitis C don't work for everyone. Chronic hepatitis C infection is cured or controlled in about half of the people who are treated with a combination of peginterferon and ribavirin. 7 Treatment works for up to 45% of people with genotype 1 and up to 80% of people with genotype 2 or 3. 7 Adding a protease inhibitor (such as boceprevir or telaprevir) to peginterferon/ribavirin therapy controls hepatitis C in up to 88% of people with genotype 1. 8
If you have tried interferon in the past and didn't get good results, talk to a doctor who is a liver specialist ( hepatologist ). He or she will be able to tell you about new, experimental medicines.
The length of your treatment depends on what hepatitis C genotype you have. Genotype 1 typically is treated for 1 year. Genotypes 2 and 3 typically are treated for 6 months. If you have genotype 1 and your viral load does not show signs of improvement after 3 months of treatment, your treatment may be stopped.
It is important to weigh the benefits of medicines for hepatitis C against the drawbacks. You most likely don't need to make a quick decision about treatment, because hepatitis C progresses very slowly. Talking with your doctor can help you decide whether medicines are right for you.
If chronic hepatitis C damages your liver so severely that it no longer works well (end-stage liver failure), you may need a liver transplant to extend your life. Liver transplants aren't common.
A liver transplant is the only surgical treatment that can help people with end-stage liver failure.
What to think about
Liver transplantation is a risky, expensive procedure. And donor organs are hard to get. Most of the time, only people who are in good health (other than having liver disease) are considered for a transplant. You will not be considered if you are drinking alcohol, using illegal drugs, or have certain mental health problems.
After a liver transplant, you will need lifelong follow-up care by a specialist. You also will need to take immunosuppressant medicine to keep your body from rejecting the new liver. This medicine may cause other problems.
Hepatitis C almost always infects the newly transplanted liver. Recurring liver disease after a transplant can be a serious problem and may cause the new organ to fail. But most patients do very well after a liver transplant and are able to live normal lives.
Some people seek out complementary medicines or alternative ways to treat their hepatitis C. At this time, no complementary or alternative medicines have been proved to reduce symptoms or cure hepatitis C. In fact, some herbal therapies (such as kava ) may actually damage the liver. 9
Preliminary studies of the herb milk thistle do show that it may help protect the liver from inflammation . 10 The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine currently is conducting clinical trials on the use of milk thistle for hepatitis C. Talk to your doctor if you are thinking about trying milk thistle or any other complementary therapy to treat hepatitis C.
Other Places To Get Help
Last Revised: July 6, 2011
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Flamm SL (2003). Chronic hepatitis C virus infection. JAMA, 289(18): 2413–2417.
Wiegand J, et al. (2006). Early monotherapy with pegylated interferon alfa-2b for acute hepatitis C infection: The HEP-NET Acute HCV-II Study. Hepatology, 43(2): 250–256.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2010). Hepatitis C: FAQs for health professionals. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/HCV/HCVfaq.htm.
Ward RP, et al. (2004). Management of hepatitis C: Evaluating suitability for drug therapy. American Family Physician, 69(6): 1429–1438.
Singal AK, et al. (2010). Antiviral therapy reduces risk of hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with hepatitis C virus-related cirrhosis, Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 8(2): 192–199.
Hoofnagle JH (2008). Chronic hepatitis C. In L Goldman, D Ausiello, eds., Cecil Medicine, 23rd ed., pp. 1113–1116. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
Bacon BR, et al. (2011). Boceprevir for previously treated chronic HCV genotype 1 infection. New England Journal of Medicine, 364(13): 1207–1217.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2009). Consumer advisory: Kava-containing dietary supplements may be associated with severe liver injury. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm085482.htm.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2009). CAM and Hepatitis C: A Focus on Herbal Supplements (NCCAM Publication No. D422). Washington, DC: U.S. National Institutes of Health. Available online: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/hepatitisc/hepatitisc.pdf.
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