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Learning About Hepatitis C in Children and Teens

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver. It's caused by a virus. Sometimes it's a short-term (acute) infection that goes away without treatment. But more often, it becomes a long-term (chronic) infection. It can damage the liver and lead to serious disease. Treatment can usually cure hepatitis C.

How does the virus spread?

Hepatitis C is spread by contact with an infected person's blood. If a person who has hepatitis C is pregnant, their baby may get infected before or during birth. This is a common way that children get hepatitis C.

There are other ways a child or teen could get infected. They include:

  • Getting a tattoo or a piercing with a needle that wasn't cleaned properly.
  • Sharing personal items with an infected person. Examples include razors, towels, toothbrushes, and nail clippers.
  • Sharing equipment used to inject or snort drugs.
  • Having unprotected sex with someone who's infected. (But this is rare.)

Hepatitis C isn't spread through breast milk. And you can't get it from sharing food or drink, coughing or sneezing, or casual contact like hugging or kissing.

What are the symptoms?

Most children infected with hepatitis C don't have any symptoms. Sometimes a child may have mild symptoms, such as belly pain and fatigue. If left untreated, the child may develop symptoms such as itching, joint pain, and jaundice. Even with no symptoms, children and teens who are infected can spread the virus.

How is it diagnosed?

A blood test is used to diagnose hepatitis C. First, a hepatitis C (HCV) antibody test is done. This shows if a child has been exposed to this virus. If the test is positive (which means they have been exposed), then an HCV RNA blood test is done. This test shows if the child is infected with the hepatitis C virus now.

Children need to be tested for hepatitis C if they may have been exposed to infected blood. If the parent who gave birth to the child had hepatitis C, the child is usually tested at or after the age of 18 months. Testing is repeated after the child is 3 years old to find out if treatment is needed. Other children birthed by the same parent may need to be tested too.

How is it treated?

In some cases, a child's body will clear the virus without treatment. But in most cases, a child will need treatment to get rid of the virus.

Hepatitis C is treated with antiviral medicines. A doctor can prescribe these medicines for an infected child who is age 3 years or older.

Most children can be cured with 8 to 12 weeks of treatment. Follow-up testing is needed to be sure that the infection was cured.

How can you help prevent hepatitis C?

There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. But there are things you can do to make infection less likely. For example, teach your child or teen that it's important to:

  • Make sure that all tools and supplies are sterilized if they get a piercing or tattoo.
  • Avoid sharing personal items that could have blood on them. These include towels, nail clippers, toothbrushes, and razors.
  • Stay away from drugs. Sharing supplies to inject or snort drugs is the main way the hepatitis C virus is spread.
  • Practice safer sex when they become active. Using condoms can help prevent hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like chlamydia.

If your child has hepatitis C, it's important to help your child avoid spreading the virus to others.

  • Tell the people your child interacts with that your child has hepatitis C. This includes household members, your child's school, your child's doctor and dentist, and anyone else who may come in contact with your child's blood.
  • Help your child's teachers, daycare providers, coaches, and babysitters learn about the infection. The virus isn't spread by casual contact, so your child can take part in normal activities. Explain the need to avoid sharing personal items and to avoid contact with blood.
  • Teach your child not to share items that may have blood on them. This includes towels, razors, toothbrushes, and nail clippers.
  • Keep your child's cuts, scrapes, and blisters covered.
  • Wear disposable gloves when you touch anything that has your child's blood on it. Use a diluted bleach solution to clean surfaces that have blood on them. Before you throw away items with blood on them, seal them in a plastic bag.

Where can you learn more?

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