The hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes hepatitis C, a contagious liver infection.
Chronic hepatitis C occurs when an HCV infection goes untreated. Over time, this causes liver damage and sometimes liver cancer. About 3.5 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C.
Acute hepatitis C occurs in the first six months after you’ve contracted the virus, although you may not experience any symptoms. Some people can fight off an acute infection without any long-term health problems.
Hepatitis C spreads through contact with blood from a person with an HCV infection. The most common cause of hepatitis C is from sharing needles with an infected person. The infection also can be passed through unsterilized tattoo needles. Mothers can transmit the virus to their babies at birth, but not through breastfeeding.
Although chances are low, the infection can be spread through contact with fresh or dried blood. When cleaning stray blood, wear rubber gloves and use a mixture of 1 part household bleach to 10 parts water.
Unlike the flu or common cold, hepatitis isn’t airborne. That means it can’t be passed through sneezing, coughing, or sharing your food with someone else. Likewise, you can’t get it through kissing or hugging someone with the virus.
There’s a small risk of infection if you share personal care items that come in contact with infected blood, like a toothbrush or razor.
The risk of transmission or contraction from sexual contact is very low if both partners are monogamous. However, you should use a condom if you and your partner have had multiple sexual relationships or sex with someone you know has hepatitis C.
As far as traveling, you can’t get the virus abroad unless you come into contact with infected blood or receive blood products that contain HCV.
Many people with hepatitis C don’t know they have it until several months to years after transmission. Symptoms may not materialize until six months or longer after initial infection.
If the infection’s left untreated, the following symptoms may develop:
- abdominal pain
- dark-colored urine or light-colored stool
If the infection becomes chronic, it can affect your liver and produce the following symptoms:
- abdominal fluid
- a star-shape vein pattern on your abdomen
Those who share needles are at higher risk of catching and spreading hepatitis C. Getting a tattoo with improperly cleaned needles can also spread the infection.
Other people who are at greater risk include those who:
- have HIV
- work in healthcare
- have received blood or blood products before 1987
- have received a donor organ or hemodialysis for kidney failure
There’s no vaccine for hepatitis C, so the best way to prevent it is avoiding any situations in which you can come into contact with someone’s blood, such as:
- Sharing needles. Avoid this practice and be careful when disposing of used ones.
- Sharing personal items. Avoid sharing your toothbrush, razor, or nail clippers with someone with HCV.
- Seeing your healthcare provider. Make sure that healthcare professionals wear a new set of gloves before they examine you.
- Sexual activity. Use a condom if you aren’t in a monogamous relationship and have multiple sexual partners.
- Getting a tattoo. Be sure your tattoo artist uses instruments from a sealed package. This indicates that they’ve been sterilized.
Not all people with hepatitis C need treatment. Some just need regular checkups and blood tests to monitor liver function, especially if they have an acute infection. Others may be prescribed antiviral medications for several weeks to rid their body of the virus.
If you think that you’ve come into contact with HCV, visit your doctor immediately to be checked for possible treatment.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends hepatitis C screening for people at elevated risk and adults born between 1945 and 1965.