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Hepatitis C

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 31, 2022.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is inflammation of the liver caused by hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection.

Abdominal Organs

How is HCV spread?

HCV is carried in the blood and other body fluids, such as semen or vaginal fluids. The following are some ways HCV is spread:

  • A stick from an infected needle, including for illegal drugs and for procedures such as tattooing
  • An object with infected blood or body fluids on it touches your wound
  • Sharing personal items, such as razors, toothbrushes, or nail clippers with someone who has hepatitis C
  • Travel to areas in the world where HCV is common
  • Unprotected sex with someone who has hepatitis C, sex with more than one partner, or you are a man who has sex with men
  • Rarely, a blood, organ, or tissue transplant from an infected donor, or long-term kidney dialysis

What are the signs and symptoms of hepatitis C?

You may not have any signs or symptoms at first. Any of the following may develop if HCV damages your liver:

  • Fatigue
  • Dark urine or pale bowel movements
  • Fever
  • Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes) and itchy skin
  • Joint pain, body aches, or weakness
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting
  • Pain in the upper right side of your abdomen

What do I need to know about hepatitis C screening?

Screening means you are tested for hepatitis C before you have signs or symptoms. This helps healthcare providers find and treat hepatitis C early. Screening is usually recommended 1 time for all adults who are 18 to 79 years of age. Screening may also be recommended during pregnancy to lower the risk for HCV being passed from mother to baby. Screening may start before age 18 or after 79 if your risk is high and continue regularly if your risk remains high.

How is hepatitis C diagnosed?

Your provider will ask if you have symptoms of hepatitis C. Tell him or her any health problems you have, and if you have other infections, such as HIV or hepatitis B. Tell him or her if you drink alcohol or use any illegal drugs. Also tell him or her if you have a tattoo, and when you got it. A tattoo applied with a needle increases the risk for hepatitis C. He or she may also ask about your sex partners. You may need any of the following tests:

  • Blood tests are used to check for HCV antibodies made by your body to fight the infection. The tests can show the type of HCV you have, and how many viruses are present. This will help your provider make a treatment plan.
  • A liver biopsy may show the type of HCV you have and if it is severe.
  • Other tests may be needed to check for liver disease and liver function. Tests may include an endoscopy or a CT scan.

How is hepatitis C treated?

Your body may clear a hepatitis C infection without treatment. An HCV infection that continues for longer than 6 months is considered chronic hepatitis. The goal of treatment is to prevent health problems hepatitis C can cause. Examples include cirrhosis and liver failure or cancer. You may need any of the following:

  • Antiviral medicines are used to cure a hepatitis C infection. You will need to take these medicines for 8 to 12 weeks. Other kinds of medicines may be used to keep the virus from spreading or to prevent or decrease liver damage. The type of medicine you need will depend on how severe your hepatitis is. It will also depend on if you have liver damage.
  • Surgery may be done to remove part of your liver. A liver transplant may be done if your liver stops working. Your diseased liver is removed and replaced with a healthy, donated liver.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What can I do to manage hepatitis C?

  • Do not drink alcohol or use illegal drugs. Alcohol and drugs can increase liver damage. Ask your healthcare provider for more information if you need help quitting.
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine can damage blood vessels and make it more difficult to manage hepatitis C. Do not use e-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco in place of cigarettes or to help you quit. They still contain nicotine. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help quitting.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, beans, and lean meats and fish. Ask if you need to be on a special diet.
  • Get more rest. Slowly return to your normal activities when you feel better.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about vaccines. You may need to get vaccines to protect you from hepatitis A or B. You may also need a pneumonia vaccine. Get the flu vaccine each year as soon as it is available. Ask your healthcare provider about other vaccines you need.

How can I prevent the spread of HCV?

No vaccine is available to prevent hepatitis C. The following can help prevent HCV from spreading to others:

  • Cover any open cuts or scratches. If blood from your wound gets on a surface, clean the surface with bleach right away. Put on gloves before you clean. Throw away any items with blood or body fluids on them, as directed by your healthcare provider.
  • Do not share personal items. These items include toothbrushes, nail clippers, and razors. Do not share needles.
  • Tell household members and sex partners that you have HCV. They should be tested for HCV. Do not have sex, including oral and anal sex, until your healthcare provider tells you it is okay. If you have sex, make sure the male partner wears a latex condom.
  • Protect your baby. It is okay to breastfeed your baby unless your nipples are cracked or bleeding. If you are pregnant, ask your healthcare provider for more information on keeping your baby from getting HCV. Medicines used to treat hepatitis C cannot be used during pregnancy.
  • Do not donate blood, body organs, semen, or other tissues. Donations are checked for HCV, but it is best not to donate.

What can I do to prevent the spread of germs?

  • Wash your hands often. Wash your hands several times each day. Wash after you use the bathroom, change a child's diaper, and before you prepare or eat food. Use soap and water every time. Rub your soapy hands together, lacing your fingers. Wash the front and back of your hands, and in between your fingers. Use the fingers of one hand to scrub under the fingernails of the other hand. Wash for at least 20 seconds. Rinse with warm, running water for several seconds. Then dry your hands with a clean towel or paper towel. Use hand sanitizer that contains alcohol if soap and water are not available. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth without washing your hands first.
  • Cover a sneeze or cough. Use a tissue that covers your mouth and nose. Throw the tissue away in a trash can right away. Use the bend of your arm if a tissue is not available. Wash your hands well with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer.
  • Stay away from others while you are sick. Avoid crowds as much as possible.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have severe abdominal pain.
  • You are too dizzy to stand up.
  • You vomit blood or material that looks like coffee grounds.
  • You feel confused or are very sleepy.
  • Your bowel movements are red or black, and sticky.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have a fever.
  • You are vomiting and cannot keep food or liquids down.
  • Your abdomen or legs have a rash or are swollen.
  • You are bruising easily.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Learn more about Hepatitis C

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Further information

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