The facts about hepatitis C
While it’s gaining more attention among older adults, people of all ages should know about the health complications of hepatitis C, how it spreads and what treatment options are available.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a virus that infects the liver. It spreads through exposure to blood from an infected person. Hepatitis C infection can be acute, meaning it lasts for a short time, or it can be chronic, or long-lasting. Doctors use blood tests to diagnose hepatitis C.
Acute hepatitis C infection
In 2014, 30,500 people in the United States became infected with acute hepatitis C, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
An acute infection often doesn’t cause any symptoms. When they do occur, they appear 2 weeks to 6 months after a person is exposed to the virus. Symptoms can go away on their own or with treatment. They may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dark urine
- Pale or clay-colored stool
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- Joint pain
Chronic hepatitis C infection
Nearly 4 million people in the U.S. have chronic hepatitis C but most are unaware they are infected because secondary issues, such as liver problems, often don’t appear for decades, according to the CDC.
Chronic hepatitis C infection can cause life-threatening liver disease. It is the most common cause of cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. Cirrhosis makes it difficult for the liver to function, is the biggest risk factor for liver cancer and is the most common reason for liver transplantation.
How is hepatitis C treated?
Doctors use a combination of antiviral medications to treat chronic hepatitis C infection and most people can be cured. Physicians may sometimes prescribe the same antiviral drugs to treat an acute hepatitis C infection, or doctors may monitor you to see if the acute infection clears on its own. A vaccine to prevent the hepatitis C virus is not available.
How do people get hepatitis C?
Because the virus is carried in the blood, people can contract hepatitis C through:
- Sharing needles or syringes to inject drugs
- Needle stick injuries in the hospital or other healthcare facility
- Hemodialysis for kidney failure if the equipment is not sterile
- Body piercing or tattooing with nonsterile instruments
- Sharing items that come into contact with another person’s blood, such as razors
- Pregnancy – women who are pregnant can transmit the virus to the fetus
- Sexual contact with someone with hepatitis C, although this risk is thought to be low
Before screening of the U.S. blood supply was initiated in 1992, hepatitis C was commonly spread through organ transplants and blood transfusions.
About three quarters of people in the U.S. with this infection were born between the years of 1945 and 1965. The reasons for this aren’t entirely understood. However, this generation may have been exposed to the virus before hospital infection-prevention standards were in place or through contaminated blood products.
UCLA Health takes action
UCLA Health has launched an initiative to screen baby boomers for hepatitis C with a routine blood test. For more information about this screening initiative, visit UCLA Test4HepC.
If you aren’t a baby boomer, but would like to know more about your risk for hepatitis C, please contact UCLA Health’s Division of Digestive Diseases Hepatology.