What is it?
- Hepatitis C is an infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver and leads to inflammation. Most people infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) have no symptoms. In fact, most people don't know they have the hepatitis C infection until liver damage shows up, decades later, during routine medical tests.
- Hepatitis C is one of several hepatitis viruses and is generally considered to be among the most serious of these viruses. Hepatitis C is passed through contact with contaminated blood — most commonly through needles shared during illegal drug use.
Hepatitis C infection usually produces no signs or symptoms during its earliest stages. When signs and symptoms do occur, they're generally mild and flu-like and may include:
Hepatitis C infection is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV is spread when you come in contact with contaminated blood.
Examples of how HCV can be spread include:
- Blood transfusions and organ transplants before 1992. Improved blood-screening tests became available in 1992. Before that year, it was possible to unknowingly contract hepatitis C through a blood transfusion or organ transplant.
- Shared needles. HCV can also spread through sharing contaminated needles when injecting drugs.
- Childbirth. A small number of babies born to mothers with hepatitis C acquire the infection during childbirth.
- Sexual contact. In rare cases, HCV may be transmitted sexually.
Your risk of hepatitis C infection is increased if you:
- Are a health care worker who has been exposed to infected blood
- Have ever injected illicit drugs
- Are HIV-positive
- Received a piercing or tattoo in an unclean environment using unsterile equipment
- Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- Received hemodialysis treatments for a long period of time
- Were born to a woman with a hepatitis C infection
Hepatitis C infection that continues over many years can cause significant complications, such as:
- Scarring of the liver tissue (cirrhosis). After 20 to 30 years of hepatitis C infection, cirrhosis may occur. Scarring in your liver makes it difficult for your liver to function.
- Liver cancer. A small number of people with hepatitis C infection may develop liver cancer.
- Liver failure. A liver that is severely damaged by hepatitis C may be unable to function.
Screening healthy people for hepatitis C
Testing for hepatitis C infection in people who have a high risk of coming in contact with the virus may help doctors begin treatment or recommend lifestyle changes that may slow liver damage. This is recommended because hepatitis C infection often begins damaging the liver before it causes signs and symptoms.
People who may want to talk to their doctors about screening for hepatitis C infection include:
- Anyone who has ever injected illicit drugs
- Anyone with unexplained, unusual liver function tests
- Babies born to mothers with hepatitis C
- Health care and emergency workers who have been exposed to blood or accidental needle sticks
- People with hemophilia who were treated with clotting factors before 1987
- People who have ever undergone long-term hemodialysis treatments
- People who received blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992
- Sexual partners of anyone diagnosed with hepatitis C infection
Blood tests to diagnose hepatitis C
Blood tests may help to:
- Determine whether you have the hepatitis C virus
- Measure the quantity of the hepatitis C virus in your blood (viral load)
- Evaluate the genetic makeup of the virus (genotyping), which helps determine your treatment options
Testing samples of liver tissue to determine severity of liver damage
Your doctor may also recommend a procedure to remove a small sample of liver tissue for laboratory testing. A liver biopsy can help determine the severity of the disease and guide treatment decisions. During a liver biopsy, your doctor inserts a thin needle through your skin and into your liver to remove the tissue sample.