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Chronic Hepatitis C: The Basics

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This long-lasting liver infection is caused by the hepatitis C virus. During the first 6 months, it's called acute hepatitis.

For most people who get it -- up to 80% -- the illness moves into a long-lasting stage. This is called a chronic hepatitis C infection.

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Who Gets It?

Most people catch the hep C virus when blood from someone who has it gets into their body. This can happen if you share needles to use drugs, or get stuck by one because you work in a hospital or doctor's office. People born to a mother who has it will probably get it, too.

You can also get it from having sex with someone who has the virus. Your chances go up if you have a sexually transmitted disease, several partners, or take part in sex that's rough enough to cause bleeding.

You can't get hepatitis C by touching, kissing, coughing, sneezing, sharing utensils, or breastfeeding.

The CDC recommends you get tested for hepatitis C if:

  • You received blood from a donor who later found out they had hepatitis C
  • You’ve ever injected drugs
  • You had a blood transfusion or an organ transplant before July 1992
  • You got a blood product used to treat clotting problems before 1987
  • You were born between 1945 and 1965
  • You've had long-term kidney dialysis
  • You have HIV
  • You were born to a mother with hepatitis C

Since July 1992, all blood and organ donations in the U.S. are tested for the hepatitis C virus. The CDC says the number of infections dropped by 90%, partially as a result of those screening tests.

What Are the Symptoms?

You can have the disease and not have symptoms for years. You may not find out you have it until your doctor does a blood test for some other reason and notices a problem with your liver enzymes. If you have chronic hepatitis C, your may notice:

You may also have symptoms related to cirrhosis. This condition, which affects people who've had hep C for a long time, causes your liver to scar over:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Bleeding or bruising easily

You can find out if you have a hep C with blood tests. If they're positive, you'll likely have more done to make sure your liver is healthy. You may also need a liver biopsy and imaging tests.

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