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Patient education: Hepatitis C (The Basics)

Patient education: Hepatitis C (The Basics)

What is hepatitis C? — Hepatitis C is a disease that harms the liver. The liver is a big organ in the upper right side of the belly (figure 1). A virus causes this disease. The virus is called the hepatitis C virus. It spreads from person to person through contact with blood. This can happen in a few ways, including sharing drug needles.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C? — Most people with hepatitis C have no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include:

Feeling tired or weak

Lack of hunger

Nausea

Muscle or joint aches

Weight loss

In most cases, hepatitis C lasts for many years. That can lead to liver scarring, called "cirrhosis." Many people with cirrhosis have no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include:

Swelling in the belly and legs, and fluid build-up in the lungs

Bruising or bleeding easily

Trouble taking in a full breath

Feeling full in the belly

Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, called jaundice

Confusion that can come on suddenly

Coma

How did I get the disease? — You can catch the hepatitis C virus if you have contact with the blood of someone who is infected. This can happen if you:

Use injection drugs and share needles, syringes, and other items

Use drugs through the nose and share straws

Use infected needles for tattooing, acupuncture, or piercings

Share toothbrushes, razors, or other things that could have blood on them

Got a blood transfusion in the US before 1990 (after that time, blood banks started testing donated blood for hepatitis C)

You can catch the hepatitis C virus if you have sex with someone who is infected. But this does not happen very often.

A pregnant woman who is infected can also give hepatitis C to her baby.

Some people who have hepatitis C do not remember how they were infected. In the US, experts recommend that all people older than 18 years get tested at least once for hepatitis C. So your doctor might want to test you for hepatitis C, even if you have not done any of the things that put you at risk for infection.

Is there a test for hepatitis C? — Yes. Your doctor might order a few tests:

Blood tests can show:

If you have hepatitis C

What type of the virus you have (there are at least 6 types)

If you have hepatitis C, your doctor will also want to know if you have any liver scarring. Ways to check for scarring include:

Blood tests

Liver scan – This is a type of imaging test that can show how much scarring you have. Not all doctors have access to the machine that does the scan.

How is hepatitis C treated? — There are different medicines to treat hepatitis C. You will have to take a combination of 2 or more medicines. The medicines come in pill form. Treatment usually lasts 2 to 3 months depending on which combination you use. Some combinations only work on certain types of the hepatitis C virus.

Your doctor can help you decide which medicines are right for you.

Is there anything I can do to protect my liver? — Yes, you can:

Avoid alcohol

Maintain a healthy weight

Get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B

Get vaccinated for pneumonia, the flu, COVID-19, and other diseases

Ask your doctor or nurse before taking any over-the-counter pain medicines (these medicines can sometimes damage the liver)

What if I want to get pregnant? — If you want to get pregnant, talk to your doctor or nurse first. About 1 in 20 pregnant people who have hepatitis C pass the virus on to their baby during pregnancy. This number is higher in people who are also infected with HIV.

What will my life be like? — Many people with hepatitis C are able to live normal lives. Treatment can cure the disease in almost all cases.

If you have hepatitis C, it is still safe to:

Hug, kiss, and touch other people (but you can spread the infection through sex)

Share forks, spoons, cups, and food

Sneeze or cough

Breastfeed

More on this topic

Patient education: Treatment for hepatitis C (The Basics)
Patient education: Alcohol use — when is drinking a problem? (The Basics)
Patient education: Hepatitis B (The Basics)
Patient education: Cirrhosis (The Basics)
Patient education: Liver transplant (The Basics)

Patient education: Hepatitis C (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 02, 2023.
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