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Learning About Hepatitis C

Digestive system

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a liver infection. It is caused by the hepatitis C virus. The virus is spread through infected blood and body fluids.

Hepatitis C is often spread when a person shares infected needles used to inject illegal drugs. It also can be spread if a person uses a needle that has infected blood on it. This could happen when you get a tattoo or piercing. Or it can happen when you get a shot in some developing countries where they use needles more than once to give shots.

In rare cases, a mother with hepatitis C can spread the virus to her baby at birth. Or a health care worker may accidentally be exposed to blood that is infected with hepatitis C.

There is a very small risk of getting the virus through sexual contact. The risk is higher if your sex partner also has HIV or another sexually transmitted infection, or if you have many sex partners.

You can't get hepatitis C from casual contact. This is contact such as hugging, kissing, sneezing, coughing, and sharing food or drinks.

What happens when you have hepatitis C?

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 get long-term, or chronic, hepatitis C. This can lead to liver damage as well as cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure.

Experts recommend that certain groups of people get tested for the virus. These include people who have signs of liver disease or have ever shared needles while using illegal drugs. Ask your doctor if testing is right for you.

What are the symptoms?

Most people who get hepatitis C do not have symptoms at first. Symptoms may include:

  • Tiredness.
  • Headache.
  • Sore muscles.
  • Nausea.
  • Pain in the upper right belly.
  • Yellowing of your skin and eyes (jaundice).
  • Dark urine.

How can you prevent hepatitis C?

There is no vaccine to prevent the disease. Anyone who has hepatitis C can spread the virus to someone else. You can take steps to make infection less likely.

  • Do not share needles to inject drugs.
  • Follow safety guidelines if you work in a health care setting. Wear protective gloves and clothing. Dispose of needles and other sharp objects properly.
  • Make sure all instruments and supplies are sterilized if you get a tattoo, have your body pierced, or have acupuncture.

To avoid spreading hepatitis C if you have it:

  • Do not share needles or other equipment, such as cotton, spoons, and water, if you use needles to inject drugs.
  • Keep cuts, scrapes, and blisters covered. This will prevent others from coming in contact with your blood and other body fluids. Throw out any blood-soaked items such as used bandages.
  • Do not donate blood or sperm.
  • Wash your hands and anything that has come in contact with your blood. Use soap and water.
  • Do not share your toothbrush, razor, nail clippers, or anything else that might have your blood on it.
  • Use latex condoms during sex if you have HIV, multiple sex partners, or a sexually transmitted infection.

How is hepatitis C treated?

  • If you have acute hepatitis C, your doctor will probably prescribe medicine.
  • If you have chronic hepatitis C, your treatment depends on whether you have liver damage, other health problems you may have, and how much virus is in your body and what type it is.
  • You will need to see your doctor regularly to have blood tests to check your liver.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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