Hepatitis C

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either "acute" or "chronic."

Acute Hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the Hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.

Chronic Hepatitis C virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the Hepatitis C virus remains in a person's body. Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer

How is Hepatitis C spread?

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 the Hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, Hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

People can become infected with the Hepatitis C virus during such activities as

  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs
  • Needlestick injuries in health care settings
  • Being born to a mother who has Hepatitis C

Less commonly, a person can also get Hepatitis C virus infection through

  • Sharing personal care items that may have come in contact with another person's blood, such as razors or toothbrushes
  • Having sexual contact with a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus

How is acute Hepatitis C treated?

There is no medication available to treat acute Hepatitis C infection. Doctors usually recommend rest, adequate nutrition, and fluids.

How is chronic Hepatitis C treated?

Each person should discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating hepatitis. This can include some internists, family practitioners, infectious disease doctors, or hepatologists (liver specialists). People with chronic Hepatitis C should be monitored regularly for signs of liver disease and evaluated for treatment. The treatment most often used for Hepatitis C is a combination of two medicines, interferon and ribavirin. However, not every person with chronic Hepatitis C needs or will benefit from treatment. In addition, the drugs may cause serious side effects in some patients.

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Content source: Division of Viral Hepatitis and National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention

Reviewed by athealth on February 5, 2014.