Hepatitis C

The liver helps with digestion but is not part of the digestive tract. It is the largest organ in the body and carries out many important functions, such as making bile, changing food into energy, and cleaning alcohol and poisons from the blood.

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that sometimes causes permanent damage. It is most commonly caused by viruses, bacteria, certain medicines, or alcohol. It may also be caused by certain diseases, such as autoimmune diseases, metabolic diseases, and congenital (present at birth) abnormalities. Generally, symptoms of hepatitis include fever, jaundice, and an enlarged liver. There are several types of hepatitis.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C (known as HCV, once called non-A, non-B hepatitis) is a liver disease caused by a bloodborne virus. Discovered in 1989, this strain of acute viral hepatitis causes over 20,000 new infections in the U.S. each year.

Recovery from this infection is rare. About 75% to 85% of infected people become chronic carriers of the virus. About 20% of people infected with hepatitis C virus will become sick with jaundice or other symptoms of hepatitis. Sixty to 70% of these people may go on to develop chronic liver disease.

Chronic liver disease due to hepatitis C is the leading indication for liver transplant each year in the U.S.

What causes hepatitis C?

Transmission of hepatitis C occurs mainly from contact with infected blood, but can also occur from sexual contact or from an infected mother to her baby. Blood transfusions before 1992 and the use of shared needles are other significant causes of the spread of hepatitis C.

Who is at risk for hepatitis C?

These people may be at risk for contracting hepatitis C:

  • Children born to mothers who are infected with the virus

  • People who have a blood-clotting disorder, such as hemophilia and received clotting factors before 1987

  • People who require dialysis for kidney failure

  • People who received a blood transfusion before 1992

  • People who may participate in high-risk activities, such as intravenous (IV) drug use and/or unprotected heterosexual or homosexual sexual contact

  • People born between 1945 and 1965

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. People who are at risk should be checked regularly for hepatitis C. People who have hepatitis C should be monitored closely for signs of chronic hepatitis and liver failure.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

These are the most common symptoms for hepatitis C:

  • Loss of appetite

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Vague stomach pain

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

  • Fever

  • Dark yellow urine

  • Light-colored stools

  • Muscle and joint pain

  • Intestinal bleeding

  • Confusion

  • Swollen belly filled with fluid

Symptoms may occur from 2 weeks to many months after exposure. The symptoms of hepatitis C may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is hepatitis C diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, tests for hepatitis C may include:

  • Blood tests

  • Liver biopsy. A procedure performed to remove tissue or cells from the body for exam under a microscope.

Treatment for hepatitis C

Specific treatment for hepatitis C will be determined by your healthcare professional based on:

  • How old you are

  • Your overall health and medical history

  • How sick you are

  • How well you can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies

  • How long the condition is expected to last

  • Your opinion or preference

In the past, biological therapy with interferon was used to treat hepatitis C. However, many new oral medicines have recently become available for treatment. At the present time, a vaccine is not available to prevent hepatitis C.

Back to top