Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus. The virus is spread mainly through contact with the blood of someone who is infected. Sometimes it is spread through sexual contact. You can get the infection from:
Before 1990 one of the most common ways to get hepatitis C was blood transfusion. However, now blood donors are screened for the virus, and their blood is not used if it is infected. It is estimated that the current risk for getting hepatitis C from a transfusion in 1 in 2 million.
The disease can be spread by people who do not have any symptoms and may not know they carry the virus. These people are called asymptomatic carriers.
Hepatitis C cannot spread by hugging or kissing, food or water, sneezing, coughing, casual contact, or sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses. Hepatitis C appears to have little risk for spread through breast-feeding.
You may not have any symptoms of hepatitis until several weeks, months, or years after you are infected with the virus. Or you may never have any clear symptoms.
If you do have symptoms, they may include:
Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and symptoms. Especially important is your history of hepatitis risk factors such as IV drug abuse or unsafe sex.
Your provider will look at your skin and eyes for signs of hepatitis. Your provider will check your belly to see if the liver is bigger than it should be or hurts when it is touched.
You will have blood tests. If blood tests show that your liver is not working normally, your provider will do tests to find out if a virus is causing the problems. Tests that look for viruses can identify the hepatitis B virus. (Several types of viruses can cause hepatitis.)
You may need to have a liver biopsy to check for damage to the liver. Your skin will be numbed and then a needle will be put through your skin and into your liver. The needle is used to get a small piece of the liver for tests.
The usual treatment is rest and a healthy diet and lifestyle. Your healthcare provider will recommend that you avoid alcohol for at least 6 months.
Usually it is not necessary to stay at the hospital.
If you keep having symptoms or your liver function tests remain abnormal, you may be given antiviral drugs to slow or stop the virus from damaging the liver. You may be treated with more than 1 drug. The goal of treatment is not just to make you feel better, but to try to prevent damage to your liver. You may get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B to prevent more damage to your liver by these other types of hepatitis.
Doctors are continuing to search for the best ways to treat hepatitis C. As new information becomes available, treatments change. You should discuss possible new treatments with your healthcare provider.
Symptoms of first infection, when they occur, may last 1 to 6 weeks and then they usually go away completely.
Some people who have hepatitis C develop the chronic form of the disease. This means the virus keeps affecting the liver for several months or years. Damage to the liver by the infection can scar the liver. This scarring of the liver is called cirrhosis. The infection and damage might even cause liver failure. Your healthcare provider may check your blood every few months for signs of chronic liver disease.
Infection with the hepatitis C virus increases your risk for liver cancer.
There are no shots that protect against hepatitis C. If you have hepatitis C, you can help prevent its spread by following these guidelines:
At this time there is no known way to prevent infection of a baby born to a mother infected with hepatitis C.
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