Hepatitis C, Risk and Prevention
Hepatitis C is very common, affecting 1% to 2% of the population. It is transmitted through blood and body fluids. Hepatitis C has received the most attention because of contaminated blood used for transfusions, but it is actually transmitted far more frequently through the use of intravenous drugs. Most people do not show any symptoms after infection, but 20% to 30% may have symptoms of liver inflammation (such as yellowing of the skin or eyes, abdominal pain, dark urine, fever, or loss of appetite). Of people with hepatitis C, 70% to 80% go on to develop a chronic infection, which may lead to liver damage or cancer.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by virus in the blood called the hepatitis C virus (HCV). It causes inflammation of the liver, and it may lead to serious liver problems such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and even liver cancer. Between 15% and 30% of people with chronic HCV infection will develop cirrhosis within 20 years.
What does my liver do?
- helps produce proteins and clotting factors for your blood
- helps to keep hormones, sugar, and cholesterol balanced
- breaks down medications and toxic chemicals
How is hepatitis C spread from person to person?
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is spread through direct contact of your blood with the blood of an infected person. Many baby boomers could have gotten infected from contaminated blood and blood products before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992. But many do not know how or when they were infected.
Hepatitis C can also be transmitted by:
- sharing needles or syringes to inject drugs
- Having unprotected sex with an infected partner
- sharing personal hygiene items with an infected person (e.g., razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers)
- using non-sterile instruments and needles for tattooing and body piercing
- needlestick injury or improperly sterilized equipment in a health care setting
An accurate diagnosis is the first step in learning to effectively treat hep C. The sooner hep C is treated, the less damaging the virus can be.
How can I reduce risk of getting or spreading of hepatitis C?
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine to protect you against hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hepatitis C prevention is mostly straightforward and involves being aware of anything that may come into contact with your blood. Here are some ways to prevent spreading or contracting HCV:
- Do not touch or handle blood without wearing gloves.
- Avoid unprotected sex.
- Do not share personal hygiene items, like razors, scissors, toothbrushes, or nail cutters.
- Never share or reuse needles or other drug equipment.
- Ensure tattoo, piercing, manicure, pedicure, electrolysis, or acupuncture equipment is properly sterilized.
- Clean up any blood spills with bleach.
If you have hepatitis C:
- Advise health professionals.
- Inform your sexual partner(s) and always practice safer sex.
- Cover any open sores or breaks in the skin.
- Do not donate blood, organs, tissue, or sperm.
Your doctor can do a simple blood test to see if you’ve been exposed to HCV. If you test positive for exposure to the virus, your doctor will need to perform more tests to confirm your diagnosis and learn more about your condition.