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Hepatitis C is a disease caused by a virus that infects the liver. In time, it can lead to permanent liver damage as well as cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure.

Many people don't know that they have hepatitis C until they already have some liver damage. This can take many years. Some people who get hepatitis C have it for a short time and then get better. This is called acute hepatitis C. But most people who are infected with the virus go on to develop long-term, or chronic, hepatitis C.

Although hepatitis C can be very serious, most people can manage the disease 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.

You can get hepatitis C if:

  • You share needles and other equipment used to inject illegal drugs. This is the most common way to get hepatitis C in the United States.
  • You had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992. As of 1992 in the United States, all donated blood and organs are screened for hepatitis C.
  • You get a shot with a needle that has infected blood on it. This happens in some developing countries where they use needles more than once when giving shots.
  • You get a tattoo or a piercing with a needle that has infected blood on it. This can happen if equipment isn't cleaned properly after it is used.

In rare cases, a mother with hepatitis C spreads the virus to her baby at birth, or a health care worker is accidentally exposed to blood that is infected with hepatitis C.

Experts aren't sure if you can get hepatitis C through sexual contact. If there is a risk of getting the virus through sexual contact, it is very small. The risk is higher if you have many sex partners.

You cannot get hepatitis C from casual contact such as hugging, kissing, sneezing, coughing, or sharing food or drink.

Most people have no symptoms when they are first infected with the hepatitis C virus. If you do develop symptoms, they may include:

  • Feeling very tired.
  • Joint pain.
  • Belly pain.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Sore muscles.
  • Dark urine.
  • Yellowish eyes and skin (jaundice). Jaundice usually appears only after other symptoms have started to go away.

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.

Many people find out by accident that they have the virus. They find out when their blood is tested before a blood donation or as part of a routine checkup. Often people with hepatitis C have high levels of liver enzymes in their blood.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 06, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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