Hepatitis C is a viral infection that affects the liver. Viral means caused by a virus, a small particle that can grow and multiply within the human body and cause disease. The hepatitis C virus is passed on through contact with infected blood.
The condition caused by hepatitis C can vary in seriousness from mild to lifelong, resulting in serious damage to the liver.
Hepatitis C overview
Untreated hepatitis C may cause serious liver damage.
The virus begins as a short-term illness known as acute hepatitis C. This usually happens within the first 6 months of someone being exposed to the virus.
For 75 to 85 percent of people, acute hepatitis C develops into chronic hepatitis C.
If the disease is not treated, it can cause serious damage to the liver over time. These complications include liver failure and liver disease, and they may result in someone needing a liver transplant.
Around 2.7 to 3.9 million people in the United States are living with chronic hepatitis C. In many cases, people are unaware that they carry the virus.
Hepatitis A and B are two other versions of the disease, each one caused by a distinct virus.
Can hepatitis C survive outside the body?
The hepatitis C virus can survive outside of the body for up to 3 weeks. However, it can only do so at room temperature on clinical or household surfaces, such as a drawer handle or sink.
In almost all cases, hepatitis C is spread through contact with infected blood. Dried blood deposits may still carry the virus.
Other bodily fluids, such as urine, sweat, or semen, do not carry a high enough level of the virus to pass on an infection. Regular contact or sharing a living space with someone who has the virus is not a risk.
Medical professionals take steps to ensure the virus cannot be passed between patients. Staff in dentists' offices, hospitals, and clinics take care to keep surfaces and medical equipment sterile.
Spilled blood should always be cleaned up immediately using a cleaning solution made up of 1 half-cup of bleach and 5 cups of water. A person should wear protective gloves when they are cleaning.
How can hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C may be spread when sharing unsterilized syringes or needles.
Hepatitis C can spread when blood infected with the virus gets into the body of another person.
The most common ways that someone may get hepatitis C are:
- by sharing unsterilized syringes or needles, such as when injecting drugs
- through an injury from by a needlestick or other sharp object in a healthcare setting
- if the virus is transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy
It is possible but less likely that hepatitis C can be passed on by:
- sharing items that could have been in contact with another person's blood, such as razors and toothbrushes
- sexual contact with a person who has the virus
People most at risk of getting hepatitis C are those who:
- inject drugs, or have injected drugs in the past
- received donated blood or organs before 1992
- are children whose mother has the hepatitis C virus
- work in healthcare and have had a needlestick injury
- have HIV
If a person is concerned that they may have been exposed to the virus, they should see a doctor for testing. There are blood tests available to check for hepatitis C.
Myths about how hepatitis C spreads
Misunderstandings are common about how infection with the hepatitis C virus can happen.
The virus is passed on by contact with infected blood. Hepatitis C cannot be passed on by the following activities:
- sneezing or coughing
- sharing eating utensils
- sharing food or drink
- breast-feeding, unless nipples are cracked or bleeding
- holding hands or hugging
Getting a piercing or tattoo is safe if carried out at a licensed facility. The risk of contracting hepatitis C is very low, as long as equipment has been sterilized.
Hepatitis C is not a sexually transmitted disease, but the virus can be passed on during unprotected sex.
The risk is very low but may be higher for men who have sex with other men, people who have genital sores or ulcers, and those who have HIV.
Symptoms and treatment
Most people with hepatitis C do not have symptoms, particularly in the early stages of the disease. In its later stages, some people may experience symptoms, but others do not.
Common symptoms include:
- muscle and joint pain
- poor short-term memory or confusion
- depression and anxiety
- stomach pain
Hepatitis C can be cured with treatment, which is usually a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.
Medication to fight the virus has advanced in recent years. Drugs that are available now may work better than earlier medicines, with fewer side effects. Treatment will not work for everyone, however.
If it is not possible to completely remove the virus from the body, lifestyle changes can help someone to live with the disease.
Eating a healthful diet, taking regular exercise, cutting out alcohol, and stopping smoking will help to keep someone's liver healthy.
There is not currently a hepatitis C vaccine, although there are vaccines for hepatitis A and B. Someone who has hepatitis C and liver damage may be advised to have these vaccines to prevent further damage to the body.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise that there is no need for a person with hepatitis C to be excluded from any particular jobs or education.
Covering cuts with a plaster may help to avoid passing on the virus.
There is a very low risk of passing on the virus by everyday contact between someone who has the virus and one who does not.
To avoid possible infection, someone who has the virus should cover cuts and grazes with a plaster and carefully dispose of any items that have blood on them.
A person with hepatitis C should wash their hands thoroughly after coming into contact with their blood, such as after cleaning a wound.
The virus is not passed on through breast milk, so breast-feeding is safe. If nipples become cracked or bleed, a person should stop breast-feeding until they have healed.
The most common way for hepatitis C to spread is by sharing needles or syringes when injecting drugs. To reduce the risk of infection, a person who injects recreational drugs should never share equipment.
The hepatitis C virus is passed on by contact with infected blood. This is very unlikely to happen in everyday life, and there are clear risk factors that can usually be avoided.
Although the virus can live outside of the body, cleaning up any blood that has been spilled, and avoiding sharing personal items, such as razors, should prevent infection.