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Hepatitis C - Topic Overview

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Hepatitis C is a disease caused by a virus that infects the liver. In time, it can lead to 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.

The risk of getting hepatitis C through sexual contact is very small.1 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.

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