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Hepatitis C FAQs

Reviewed by John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

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Q:What kind of disease is caused by hepatitis C?

A:Hepatitis C virus causes an infection of the liver.

Hepatitis C (HCV) is a blood-borne virus that can become a serious, chronic infection for 75%-85% of people who become infected.

While about 15%-25% of those who contract hepatitis C do not develop serious illness, for most HCV is a serious disease than can result in long-term health problems such as chronic liver disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and even death.

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Q:Is hepatitis C contagious?

A:Yes.

Hepatitis C is contagious, and is transmitted through infectious blood. The most common way HCV is transmitted in the U.S. is by injecting drugs with shared needles. Other means of transmission include needle stick injuries in health care settings, being born to an HCV-infected mother, and receiving donated blood that is infected (this is rare in the U.S. since blood screenings started in 1992).

Less commonly, hepatitis C virus is spread by sex with an HCV-infected person, or sharing personal items that may be contaminated with infectious blood (such as razors or toothbrushes).

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Q:People who get tattoos or piercings usually contract hepatitis C. True or false?

A:False.

It is unlikely to get hepatitis C from tattoos or piercings. Licensed tattoo and piercing facilities have to follow certain regulations that make the spread of HCV unlikely. However, if precautions are not followed then transmission of hepatitis C and other infections may be possible. Before getting a tattoo or piercing, check out the facility to make sure they follow safety procedures to prevent infections.

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Q:In most people, what are symptoms of hepatitis C when initially infected?

A:Most people do not experience symptoms of hepatitis C when initially infected.

If symptoms do occur, they may appear as early as 2 weeks up to 6 months following exposure. However, most symptoms appear within 6 to 7 weeks after the initial infection. When symptoms of HCV do occur, they can include fever, fatigue, dark urine, clay-colored stools, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, and yellow colored skin or eyes (jaundice).

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Q:What is cirrhosis?

A:Cirrhosis is a progressive disease that results in scarring of the liver (also called fibrosis).

Healthy liver tissue is gradually replaced with scar tissue, which prevents the liver from functioning properly by blocking blood flow and slowing the processing of nutrients, hormones, and the filtering of toxins. It also slows production of proteins made by the liver. Generally, a healthy liver can regenerate if damaged, but if the injury is chronic or severe the scar tissue forms and can lead to cirrhosis.

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Q:Is it possible for the body to rid itself of hepatitis C?

A:It is possible for the body to rid itself of hepatitis C.

For reasons that are not yet fully understood, about 15%-25% of people infected with HCV will clear the virus from their bodies without any treatment, and will not develop a chronic infection.

For those who do have a chronic hepatitis C infection, their doctor should monitor them regularly, and they should avoid alcohol because it can damage the liver. People with HCV should also check with their doctors before taking any prescriptions, nutritional supplements, or over-the-counter medications as these may also damage the liver.

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Q:There is a vaccination against hepatitis C.

A:There is currently no vaccine that can prevent hepatitis C.

However, there are vaccines that can prevent hepatitis A and hepatitis B. If a person is infected with HCV, they should check with their doctor about getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B to possibly prevent further liver damage.

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Q:How many Americans are living with chronic hepatitis C?

A:There are about 2.7 million Americans living with chronic hepatitis C.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there were an estimated 29,718 cases of acute hepatitis C virus infections reported in the U.S. in 2013.

Those most at risk for contracting HCV include current or past injection drug users, recipients of donated blood (especially if received before 1992), people who received blood product for clotting problems made before 1987, hemodialysis patients, people who received tattoos or body piercing done without sterilized instruments, health care workers injured by needle sticks, HIV-infected persons, or children born to mothers infected with hepatitis C.

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Q:Annually, hepatitis C kills more people than HIV. True or false?

A:True. Annually, hepatitis C causes nearly 20,000 deaths, which is more than HIV/AIDS.

Because HCV often does not cause symptoms, people do not realize they are infected until it is too late to be treated. The best way to prevent HCV infection is to avoid risk factors including injecting illicit drugs, contact with infected blood, and high risk sexual behaviors such as multiple partners and anal sex.

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