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Understanding Hepatitis C -- the Basics

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by an infection with the hepatitis C virus. The liver becomes inflamed and swollen and stops working as it should. Hepatitis C is a serious disease because the liver is needed to remove toxins that build up in the blood. Hepatitis C can destroy the liver and cause cirrhosis and death. It is the main cause of liver transplants in the world.

After being infected with the hepatitis C virus, 75%-85% of people will develop a chronic, long-term, infection. Once chronic hepatitis C infection develops, 60%-70% of people develop chronic liver disease -- but less than 5% of these people die from the infection.

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What Causes Hepatitis C?

Each year, about 17,000 Americans become infected with the hepatitis C virus.  2.7  to 3.9 million Americans  have a chronic infection. The hepatitis C virus is one of the most common causes of long-lasting liver disease in the U.S.

There are several ways to get infected with hepatitis C, including:

  • Sharing needles for injection drug use
  • Accidentally getting pricked by a needle contaminated by infected blood; this sometimes happens to medical workers.
  • Being born to a mother with hepatitis C infection
  • Getting a blood transfusion from someone with hepatitis C infection. Before 1992, blood could not be tested for hepatitis C. Since 1992, all blood donated in the U.S. gets tested for the virus. If you had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before June 1992, ask your health care provider about being tested for hepatitis C.
  • Kidney dialysis equipment that is not properly sterilized
  • Sharing items like razors and toothbrushes because of the likelihood of blood traces
  • Getting a tattoo or body piercing with dirty tools or ink

Rarely can a person get hepatitis C from having unprotected sex with an infected person. This is more likely to happen if the infected person also has another sexually transmitted disease.

You cannot get hepatitis C from hugging or shaking hands with an infected person.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 30, 2014

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