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What causes hepatitis C - how do you get or catch it?

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on June 28, 2023.

Official answer


What causes HCV?

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a liver infection you can catch when the blood of an infected person enters your bloodstream. You can get HCV by:

  • sharing drug injection equipment such as needles or syringes
  • being born to a mother with HCV
  • having an accidental needle stick (such as a healthcare worker)
  • sharing personal items contaminated with HCV+ blood like nail clippers, razors or toothbrushes (or other items that may have come into contact with infected blood)
  • receive a tattoo or body piercing using unsterile equipment (unregulated facilities may be a higher risk)
  • receiving hemodialysis
  • receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992 (this risk now is extremely low) or received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
  • having unprotected sex with an infected person, especially for men who have sex with men
  • an exposure from a healthcare worker, although this is uncommon

Hepatitis C is not spread through food or water. You also don't get it from sharing food utensils, breastfeeding your baby, kissing, hugging, holding hands, coughing or sneezing.

Related: Medications Used to Treat Hepatitis C

How do I know if I have hepatitis C virus (HCV)?

Diagnosis of hepatitis C virus requires a blood test your doctor can order. Other blood tests can determine which subtype of HCV you have to better target your drug treatment, if needed. Your doctor will also want to know your viral load (the quantity of the hepatitis C virus in your blood). In some patients, a liver biopsy is required to determine the level of damage.

Symptoms of chronic (long-term) HCV may not appear for 2 to 3 decades after infection, so the disease may develop silently in your body for many years. This is the reason you should be tested for HCV infection, to start treatment if needed and to help protect your liver from damage.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends anyone 18 years or older be tested for hepatitis C virus at least once in their lifetime. Women should be tested for hepatitis C testing during each pregnancy. Some high risk groups may need more frequent testing, such as people who share drug preparation equipment and those on hemodialysis.

Learn More: Oral Hepatitis C Treatments: The Evolving Landscape

How do the symptoms of acute vs. chronic HCV differ?

Most people who have newly acquired HCV do not develop acute symptoms right after infection. However, some people may develop symptoms after 2 to 12 weeks, which can last 1 to 3 months, such as:

  • yellow-colored skin or eye sclera (jaundice)
  • weakness or muscle aches
  • fatigue
  • poor appetite
  • nausea, vomiting and stomach pain

Longer-term (chronic) symptoms may include:

  • weight loss
  • poor appetite
  • nausea or vomiting
  • feeling tired
  • fever
  • painful joints
  • dark-colored urine
  • clay-colored (light) bowel movements
  • jaundice (yellow skin or eyes) and itchy skin
  • pain in the right upper side of your stomach area

Chronic (long-term) hepatitis C can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and even death. If you eventually develop cirrhosis (a scarring disease of the liver), symptoms may include stomach swelling, easy bruising, trouble breathing, jaundice, and confusion.


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