Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). When first infected, a person can develop an “acute” infection, which can range in severity from a very mild illness with few or no symptoms to a serious condition requiring hospitalization. Acute hepatitis C is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. For reasons that are not known, 15–25% of people “clear” the virus without treatment; however, approximately 75–85% of people who become infected will develop “chronic,” or lifelong, HCV infection. Chronic hepatitis C is a long-term illness that occurs when the virus remains in a person’s body. Over time, it can lead to serious liver problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer.
Each year, about 17,000 Americans become infected with hepatitis C, but an estimated 3.2 million people in the United States are living with an active chronic hepatitis C infection. Up to 75% people with chronic hepatitis C infection were born during 1945-1965, most of whom are unaware of their infection.
Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with hepatitis C by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began, hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Although uncommon, outbreaks of hepatitis C have occurred from blood contamination in medical settings.
Chronic Hepatitis C is a serious disease that can result in long-term health problems, including liver damage, liver failure, and liver cancer. Approximately 12,000 people die every year from hepatitis C-related liver disease.
Many people with hepatitis C do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected. Symptoms of chronic hepatitis C can take up to 30 years to develop. Damage to the liver can silently occur during this time. When symptoms do appear, they often are a sign of advanced liver disease. Symptoms for both acute and chronic hepatitis C can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, grey-colored stools, joint pain, and jaundice
Doctors can diagnose hepatitis C using specific blood tests that are not part of blood work typically done during regular physical exams. Typically, a person first gets a screening test that looks for “antibodies” to the hepatitis C virus. Antibodies are chemicals released into the bloodstream when a person becomes infected. The antibodies remain in the bloodstream, even if the person clears the virus. If the screening test is positive for hepatitis C antibodies, a follow-up blood test is needed to determine whether the infection has been cleared or has become chronic, placing the infected person at risk for liver disease.
Since acute hepatitis C rarely causes symptoms, it often goes undiagnosed and therefore untreated. When it is diagnosed, doctors recommend rest, adequate nutrition, fluids, and antiviral medications. People with chronic hepatitis C should be monitored regularly for signs of liver disease. Even though a person may not have symptoms or feel sick, damage to the liver can still occur. Antiviral medications can lead to a cure in many infected persons, especially if they are taken early in the course of disease.