Thumbnail image of: Liver, Gallbladder, and Pancreas: Illustration

Hepatitis C

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver. The liver is one of the largest organs and a very important part of your body. Some of the functions of the liver include:

  • It helps your body get rid of some medicines and harmful substances.
  • It makes bile, which helps your body digest fats.
  • It stores sugar, which your body uses for energy.
  • It makes many proteins, which are the building blocks for all cells in the body.

When you have hepatitis, the liver is irritated (inflamed). It may be swollen and tender. Areas of liver tissue may be destroyed.

Hepatitis C is a serious, sometimes severe type of hepatitis. It can be life threatening.

What is the cause?

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The virus is spread mainly through contact with the blood of someone who is infected. Sometimes it is spread through sexual contact. The disease can be spread by people who do not have any symptoms and may not know they carry the virus.

A pregnant woman can pass the infection on to her baby if she is infected when the child is born.

You have a higher risk for infection if:

  • You use illegal drugs, either by IV or sharing nasal cocaine equipment with other people.
  • You have HIV/AIDS.
  • You get a piercing or permanent tattoo with unclean equipment
  • You have contact with the blood or open sores of an infected person.
  • You work in healthcare and come in contact with infected blood.
  • You have unprotected sex with an infected person.

Hepatitis C is not spread by hugging or kissing, food or water, sneezing, coughing, casual contact, or sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses.

What are the symptoms?

You may not have any symptoms of hepatitis until several weeks, months, or years after you are infected with the virus. Or you may never have any symptoms.

If you do have symptoms, they may include:

  • Yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Feeling tired
  • Dark urine
  • Pain just below the ribs on your right side, especially if you press there
  • Bowel movements that are whitish or light yellow and may be looser than normal
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • Fever

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you.

Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • A liver biopsy, which is the removal of a small sample of tissue for testing

How is it treated?

The usual treatment is rest and a healthy diet and lifestyle. The symptoms generally last several weeks. Your healthcare provider will recommend that you avoid alcohol for at least 6 months. When you have hepatitis, alcohol speeds up damage to your liver and makes it harder for your body to fight the infection. Usually you do not need to stay at the hospital for treatment unless you get dehydrated from nausea and vomiting.

If you keep having symptoms or your liver function tests stay abnormal, you may be given antiviral drugs to slow or stop the virus from damaging the liver. You may need to take your medicines for 6 to 12 months.

If you have hepatitis C and are thinking of getting pregnant or could get pregnant, you should discuss this with your provider. Some antiviral medicines used to treat hepatitis can cause serious harm or death to an unborn baby. The baby can be affected if the mother or the father is taking the medicine. You may need to use 2 types of birth control during and for several months after treatment.

You may be given shots to keep you from getting hepatitis A and B, which are 2 other types of viral hepatitis. The shots help prevent more damage to your liver from these other types of hepatitis.

Most people who have hepatitis C develop the long-term form of the disease. This means the virus keeps affecting the liver for several months or years. The infection and damage might even cause the liver to stop working. This is called liver failure.

Hepatitis C infection also increases your risk for liver cancer.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for taking medicine for your symptoms. You need to avoid taking medicines that can damage the liver more (for example, acetaminophen). Ask your provider which medicines you can safely take for your symptoms, such as itching and nausea.
  • Follow your provider’s advice for how much rest you need and when you can go back to your normal activities, including work or school. As your symptoms get better, you may slowly start being more active. It is best to avoid too much physical activity until your provider says it’s OK.
  • Eat several small, high-protein, high-calorie meals and snacks every day, even when you feel nauseated. Sipping soft drinks or juices, and sucking on hard candy may help you feel less nauseated.
  • Don’t drink alcohol unless your provider says it’s safe.
  • Ask your provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all follow-up appointments.

How can I help prevent the spread of hepatitis C?

There are no shots that protect against hepatitis C. If you have hepatitis C, you can help prevent its spread by following these guidelines:

  • Don’t let others come into contact with your blood; for example, when you have a bloody nose or a cut.
  • Clean any blood spills or stains with a mixture of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts water.
  • Cover your cuts and open sores.
  • Don’t share anything that might have blood on it, such as needles, toothbrushes, or razors.
  • Avoid sexual contact with others until your provider says it’s OK. Then use latex or polyurethane condoms during foreplay and every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Have just 1 sexual partner who is not having sex with anyone else.
  • Don’t donate blood, body organs, other tissues, or sperm.
  • Tell your dentist and all health care providers that you have hepatitis C.

At this time there is no known way to prevent infection of a baby born to a mother infected with hepatitis C.

You can get more information from:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-07-29
Last reviewed: 2014-07-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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