Your Questions About Hepatitis C, Answered

Learn how the hepatitis C virus is transmitted, who is at risk, how to get screened for hep C, and more.

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Updated on July 13, 2023.

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). For a small percentage of people who contract hepatitis C, the infection resolves within six months. Between 55 and 85 percent of people, however, will develop chronic hepatitis C, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This is a long-term infection that can potentially cause serious health complications, including liver damage, cirrhosis of the liver (where scar tissue gradually replaces healthy liver tissue), and liver cancer.

How many people have hepatitis C?

The WHO estimates that about 58 million people worldwide have chronic hepatitis C. In the United States, there were 2.4 million people living with the condition in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How is hepatitis C transmitted?

HCV is most often transmitted via contact with the blood of an infected person. This can happen a number of different ways:

  • Sharing drug paraphernalia 
  • Getting tattoos or piercings from a person or facility that doesn’t properly sterilize instruments
  • Sharing equipment like razors, toothbrushes, glucose monitors, or nail clippers that may have blood on them, even if the blood is not visible 
  • Having sex, especially men who have sex with men

Healthcare workers have at times contracted HCV after being accidentally injured with a contaminated needle or other piece of sharp medical equipment. Infants born to infected people can also become infected, though it’s relatively uncommon.

While HCV used to be spread through blood transfusions, blood products have been screened since 1992, so the risk of transmission is very low. And you can’t get HCV through kissing, hugging, breast/chestfeeding, coughing, or sneezing.

Which groups are most at risk for hepatitis C?

Historically, hepatitis C was the most prevalent among the Baby Boomer generation—those born in the United States between 1945 and 1965. This is partly because blood transfusions, organ transplants, and hemodialysis procedures before 1992 sometimes used blood components that hadn’t been properly screened. 

In recent years, however, new HCV infections are found mostly among young adults, especially those between the ages of 20 and 39 years old. This seems to be linked to the rapid rise of injection drug use among this age group and the associated use of shared or unsterilized needles.

Other groups at a higher risk for HCV include people with HIV and anyone who has used injection drugs at any point in their life. 

Does hepatitis C have symptoms?

Not usually, which is why the disease can go unreported. About 80 percent of people with new HCV infections have zero symptoms. 

For those who do experience symptoms, they usually show up within 2 to 12 weeks. Symptoms tend to be mild and resemble the flu; they include fever and fatigue. Other possible symptoms include nausea, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, joint pain, dark urine, and jaundice. Jaundice is a condition where the whites of the eyes and the skin take on a yellowish color; in people with darker skin tones, it’s most visible in the whites of the eyes.

Most people with chronic hepatitis C have either nonspecific symptoms like fatigue or depression, or they continue to have no symptoms until they begin experiencing the first signs of liver damage.

What are the complications of hepatitis C?

Many people with untreated chronic hepatitis C develop liver disease. Between 5 and 25 percent will develop cirrhosis of the liver within 10 to 20 years. This means the liver becomes badly scarred over the course of many years and stops functioning properly. People with chronic hepatitis C who’ve also developed cirrhosis have a 1 to 4 percent annual risk of developing liver cancer.

Sometimes, people with chronic HCV infections can develop medical conditions that aren’t related to the liver, including diabetes and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

How do healthcare providers test for hepatitis C?

To be screened for hepatitis C, your healthcare provider (HCP) will order a blood test called an HCV antibody test, which checks whether you have ever been infected. If positive, there will be another blood test to confirm that the infection is still active. This is because some people who contract HCV will clear it on their own and don't need further treatment.

How is hepatitis C treated?

There are a number of treatments available for hepatitis C. They usually involve 8 to 12 weeks of taking pills and cure the disease in more than 90 percent of cases, according to the CDC. It is better to diagnose and receive treatment for chronic hepatitis C as early as possible, as treatment cannot reverse liver damage that has already occurred.

Those who’ve had chronic hepatitis C, even if it has been cured, may need to make lifestyle changes to prevent any further damage to the liver. These steps can include being vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B, avoiding alcohol, and carefully checking with an HCP before taking any new medications, over-the-counter drugs, supplements, or herbs.

A final word

Though the symptoms are usually mild, chronic hepatitis C is a serious condition that can lead to severe complications later in life. No matter how it was contracted, it’s important to speak to your HCP and get tested. If caught and treated early enough, before liver damage sets in, over 90 percent of people fully recover.

Article sources open article sources

World Health Organization. Hepatitis C. June 24, 2022. 
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hepatitis C. Page last reviewed March 2020. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for the Public. Page last reviewed July 28, 2020. 
Ryerson AB, Schillie S, Barker LK, et al. Vital Signs: Newly Reported Acute and Chronic Hepatitis C Cases ― United States, 2009–2018. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:399–404.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Surveillance for Viral Hepatitis–United States, 2017. Page last reviewed November 14, 2019.

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