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Hepatitis C

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C - hep C or HCV – is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver.

Did you know? Unsafe sex also puts you at risk of HIV

How do you get hepatitis C?

It’s passed mainly through the sharing of dirty needles - for example, while injecting drugs. You can also get it from sharing a toothbrush or razor with infected blood on them. Occasionally, it can be transmitted via unprotected sex (vaginal, anal and oral).

The best way to protect yourself is by using a condom or dental dam. Also, don't share drug injecting equipment like syringes and needles as well as razors, toothbrushes or towels that may be contaminated with infected blood.1

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

20% of people who have hepatitis C will have symptoms in the first six months known as acute hepatitis C. Like hepatitis B, infection can go through two stages; acute and chronic.

Symptoms in the acute stage include:

  • feeling sick and/or vomiting
  • tiredness
  • lack of appetite
  • weight loss
  • aching muscles and joints
  • depression.

The remaining 80% will have a chronic infection where the virus lives in the body for many years. Those with chronic hepatitis C may or may not symptoms.

If symptoms do occur, they include headaches, mood swings, problems with mental tasks (like short-term memory), indigestion, itchy skin, stomach pain and pain in the liver area. Even if you have no symptoms, you can still pass the virus to others.2 3

If you have any symptoms or they keep returning, see your doctor or healthcare worker.

Can I get tested for hepatitis C?

A simple blood test shows whether you have hepatitis C by detecting antibodies to the virus.4

How is hepatitis C treated?

The majority of people with hepatitis C don't need treatment. However, you will have regular check-ups for three months to see if your body fights off the virus.

For those with a chronic infection, the usual treatment is a combination of two different medicines called pegylated interferon (given as an injection) and ribavirin (given as a capsule or tablet).5

If the virus is cleared with treatment, you are not immune to future hepatitis C infection. For example, if you continue to inject drugs, you risk becoming re-infected.

What happens if I don't get treatment for hepatitis C?

Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). This can take up to 20 years to develop after you first become infected. Other than a liver transplant, there is no cure for cirrhosis. However, treatments can help relieve some of the symptoms. A mother can also pass the infection to her baby.

  • Liver failure

Severe cases of cirrhosis can lead to liver failure. Medication can sustain life for several years, however, a liver transplant is currently the only way to cure liver failure.

  • Liver cancer

One in twenty people with cirrhosis caused by hepatitis will develop liver cancer. There is no cure but chemotherapy can slow the spread of the cancer.6

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/xrender

Last full review: 
01 May 2015

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Last updated:
25 November 2015
Last full review:
01 May 2015