What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Heavy alcohol use, some medications, toxins, certain medical conditions, and viral infections can all cause hepatitis.
Hepatitis C is liver inflammation caused by infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). About 20% to 30% of people infected with HCV will develop symptoms but most people will not experience any symptoms at all. Approximately 75% to 85% of people infected with HCV will develop a chronic infection, while 15% to 25% of people who are infected with the HCV will clear the virus from their bodies without any treatment. Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can lead to serious health problems, including liver damage, liver scarring (cirrhosis), liver cancer, and even death.
Some people are at higher risk of getting infected with hepatitis C virus such as people who use illicit drugs and share drug-using equipment.
Hepatitis C is a reportable disease in Ontario.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Many people with hepatitis C do not feel sick when they first become infected and may spread the virus without even knowing it. Others may develop symptoms such as:
- aches and pains
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of appetite
- skin rash
- yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
How is hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C is spread through the blood and in body fluids containing blood, of an infected person. Even if a person with hepatitis C has no symptoms, they can still spread the virus to others.
Today, most people become infected with hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment used to prepare or inject drugs. Sharing equipment for body piercing, ear piercing, tattooing, or sharps such as razors and nail clippers, are also ways of spreading hepatitis C infection. Improperly sterilized medical or dental equipment can also spread the virus.
Hepatitis C can be spread between sexual partners. This is most likely to happen when blood is present in body fluids.
A pregnant woman with hepatitis C virus can spread the infection to her unborn baby.
How is hepatitis C diagnosed?
Hepatitis C is diagnosed with a blood test. Testing can be offered by a health care provider and at our Sexual Health Clinics.
How is hepatitis C treated?
There is not a recommended treatment for acute hepatitis C, which means within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the HCV.
There are several medications available to treat chronic hepatitis C and these have improved over recent years. Current treatments cure over 90% of people with few side effects. The goal of the treatment is to eliminate the virus from the body and therefore prevent long-term health problems such as liver disease and liver cancer from happening.
How is hepatitis C prevented?
There is no vaccine available to prevent hepatitis C, however, research is underway to develop one. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid contact with blood and with body fluids containing blood, of someone with hepatitis C virus.
Avoid sharing items that have come into contact with the blood of a person with hepatitis C infection such as injection drug equipment, body piercing or tattooing equipment, or personal sharp items such as razors and nail clippers. Always use condoms or dental dams when engaging in sexual activity.