What is it?
Hepatitis C is a virus that can infect the liver. If left untreated, it can sometimes cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to the liver over many years.
However, with modern treatments it's usually possible to cure the infection, and most people with it will have a normal life expectancy.
It's estimated around 215,000 people in the UK have hepatitis C.
You can become infected with it if you come into contact with the blood of an infected person.
How do I get it?
You can become infected with hepatitis C if you come into contact with the blood of an infected person. Other bodily fluids can also contain the virus, but blood contains the highest level of it. Just a small trace of blood can cause an infection. At room temperature, it's thought the virus may be able survive outside the body in patches of dried blood on surfaces for up to several weeks.
The main ways you can become infected with the hepatitis C virus are described below.
- Injecting drugs
- Unprotected sex
- Blood donations before September 1991
- Blood transfusions and treatment abroad
- Sharing toothbrushes, scissors and razors
- Tattooing and body piercing
- Mother to child
- Needlestick injury
You can't get hepatitis C from kissing, social contact, such as hugging, sharing kitchen utensils or toilet seats.
Signs and symptoms
Many people with hepatitis C don't have any symptoms and are unaware they have the infection. They may develop symptoms later on as their liver becomes increasingly damaged.
Only around 1 in every 3 or 4 people will have any symptoms during the first 6 months of a hepatitis C infection. This stage is known as acute hepatitis C.
If symptoms do develop, they usually occur a few weeks after infection. Symptoms may include:
- a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above
- loss of appetite
- tummy (abdominal) pains
- feeling and being sick
Around 1 in 5 people who experiences symptoms will also have yellowing of the eyes and skin. This is known as jaundice.
In around 1 in 4 people infected with hepatitis C, the immune system will kill the virus within a few months and the person will have no further symptoms, unless they become infected again.
In the remaining cases, the virus persists inside the body for many years. This is known as chronic hepatitis.
The symptoms of long-term (chronic) hepatitis C can vary widely. In some people, symptoms may be barely noticeable. In others, they can have a significant impact on their quality of life.
The symptoms can also go away for long periods of time and then return.
Some of the most common problems experienced by people with chronic hepatitis C include:
- feeling tired all the time
- joint and muscle aches and pain
- feeling sick
- problems with short-term memory, concentration and completing complex mental tasks such as mental arithmetic – many people describe this as "brain fog"
- mood swings
- depression or anxiety
- indigestion or bloating
- itchy skin
- abdominal pain
If left untreated, the infection can eventually cause the liver to become scarred (cirrhosis). Signs of cirrhosis can include jaundice, vomiting blood, dark poo, and a build-up of fluid in the legs or abdomen.
Hepatitis C is tested usually from a blood sample.
Hepatitis C can often be treated successfully by taking medicines for several weeks. If the infection is diagnosed in the early stages, known as acute hepatitis, treatment may not need to begin straight away.
Instead, you may have another blood test after a few months to see if your body fights off the virus. If the infection continues for several months, known as chronic hepatitis, treatment will usually be recommended.
Further guidance: Hepatitis C