Top of the page
Hepatitis C is a disease caused by a virus that infects the liver. In time, it can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, or liver failure.
Many people don't know that they have the virus until they already have some liver damage. This can take many years. Some people who get the infection have it for a short time (acute) and then get better. But most people who have it go on to develop long-term, or chronic, infection.
Although hepatitis C can be very serious, most people can manage it and lead active, full lives.
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus. It is spread by contact with an infected person's blood. The most common way to get hepatitis C is by sharing needles and other equipment used to inject illegal drugs. You can't get it from casual contact like hugging, kissing, or sharing food or drink.
Most people who have hepatitis C don't have symptoms. If there are symptoms, they may include fatigue, pain in the belly and joints, itchy skin, sore muscles, and dark urine. There may also be jaundice. This is a condition in which the skin and the whites of the eyes look yellow.
If your doctor thinks you may have hepatitis C, he or she will talk to you about having a blood test. If the test shows hepatitis C antibodies, then you have had hepatitis C at some point. A second test can tell if you still have hepatitis C.
Medicines may be given for short-term (acute) hepatitis C. They are also used to treat a long-term (chronic) infection. Treatment may also help prevent liver problems. These include cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Hepatitis C is spread by contact with an infected person's blood.
You can get hepatitis C if:
You can get hepatitis C through sex, but it isn't common.
You don't need to worry about getting hepatitis C from casual contact like hugging, kissing, or sharing food or drink.
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.
Most people who are infected with hepatitis C—even people who have been infected for a while—usually don't have symptoms.
If symptoms do develop, they may include:
Most people go on to develop chronic hepatitis C but still don't have symptoms. This makes it common for people to have hepatitis C for 15 years or longer before it is diagnosed.
Some people who get hepatitis C have it for a short time (acute infection) and then get better.
But most people get long-term, or chronic, infection. This can lead to liver damage.
Long-term hepatitis C often causes tiny scars in your liver. If you have a lot of scars, it becomes hard for your liver to work well. Over time, some people have more serious problems such as cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you have hepatitis C and you:
Call your doctor if:
In most areas, public health units are able to diagnose and provide assessment and treatment of hepatitis C.
If your doctor thinks that you may have hepatitis C, he or she will:
Your doctor may order:
If you have a hepatitis C virus test, you may also get tested for HIV.
If you have short-term (acute) hepatitis C, your doctor will probably prescribe medicine. In these cases, treatment may help prevent long-term (chronic) infection.
Treatment with antiviral medicines may cure long-term hepatitis C. Treatment may also prevent serious liver problems like cirrhosis or liver cancer. You will need to have routine blood tests. The tests will help your doctor know how well your liver is working.
Your doctor will prescribe different medicines if the first treatment didn't work well. If the infection gets worse, it can cause your liver to stop working. A liver transplant may be the only way to extend your life.
Some people who have hepatitis C don't notice a big difference in the way they feel. Others feel tired, sick, or depressed. Here are some steps you can take at home that may help you feel better both physically and emotionally.
It's very common to feel tired if you have hepatitis C. If you feel tired, give yourself permission to do less and rest more. If you can, ask others to help out around your home. Or ask your employer for a shorter or more flexible work schedule.
Be active if you feel up to it. Aerobic exercise can help you have more energy. It may also improve depression. Ask your doctor about your medicines and how they might affect your ability to exercise.
Sometimes people with hepatitis C have a hard time eating. You may have no appetite, feel nauseated, or have different tastes than you're used to. Even if you don't feel like eating, it's very important to eat small meals throughout the day. Some people have nausea in the afternoon. If this happens to you, try to eat a big, nutritious meal in the morning.
If you have cirrhosis, it may not be a good idea to eat salty foods or foods that are high in protein. If you want to know more about which foods to avoid and which foods are good to eat, ask your doctor about meeting with a registered dietitian to discuss a healthy eating plan.
Your liver breaks down drugs and alcohol. If you have hepatitis C, one of the best things you can do is to avoid substances that may harm your liver, such as alcohol and illegal drugs. If you have cirrhosis, you also may need to avoid certain medicines.
If you use illegal drugs or drink alcohol, it's important to stop. If you don't think you can talk openly with your doctor, you may want to find a doctor you feel better talking to. If you want to stop using drugs or alcohol and need help to do so, ask your doctor or someone else you trust about drug and alcohol treatment options.
Many medicines can stress your liver. So talk to your doctor before you take any prescription or over-the-counter medicines. This includes natural health products too.
If you have itchy skin, talk to your doctor about medicines that you can use. Read and follow the instructions on the label.
You may feel angry or depressed about having to live with hepatitis C. You may have a hard time knowing how to tell other people that you have the virus. It can be helpful to talk with a social worker or counsellor about what having the disease means to you. You also may want to find a support group for people with hepatitis C. If you don't have a support group in your area, there are several online groups.
Anyone who has a long-term illness can get depression. It also can be a side effect of antiviral medicines for hepatitis C. If you feel depressed, talk to your doctor about antidepressant medicines, counselling, or both.
Learning about hepatitis C may help you feel more in control of it. The more you understand, the better you can make decisions about treatment and lifestyle changes that may help you feel better, both physically and emotionally.
Antiviral medicines are used to treat hepatitis C.
Current treatments for hepatitis C are very good at permanently lowering the amount of virus in the blood, and they almost always work. But they may cost a lot.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineW. Thomas London MD - Hepatology
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & W. Thomas London MD - Hepatology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.