Anju Goel, MD, MPH, is a board-certified physician who specializes in public health, communicable disease, diabetes, and health policy.
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). In the United States, it is the most common blood-borne infection, impacting around 2.4 million Americans, or roughly 1% of the adult population.
Hepatitis C is typically spread through contact with infected blood or passed from mother to child during pregnancy. It can also occasionally be spread via sexual contact. The course of an HCV infection is highly unpredictable. The virus can spontaneously clear in some people, become a persistent infection in others, and advance to a life-threatening illness in others. Treatment is generally recommended when a person shows signs of liver inflammation.
You get hepatitis C by coming into direct contact with an infected person’s blood or bodily fluids that contain blood. Sharing drug-injection equipment is the cause of most hepatitis C infections in the United States. Hepatitis C can also be spread from mother to child during pregnancy.
Yes. The virus is considered cured when, 12 weeks after completing treatment, the hepatitis C RNA (viral) level is undetectable. This lack of detectable virus is known as a sustained virologic response (SVR).
Injection-drug use and being born to a mother with hepatitis C are the most common modes of transmission. Less commonly, hepatitis C can be transmitted through sexual activity, sharing personal items (e.g., razors or toothbrushes) that contain contaminated blood, needle-stick injuries in health-care settings, blood transfusions, and tattoo and body piercings with unsterile needles.
Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that can spread through direct contact with an infected person’s blood; however, it’s not contagious like the common cold or flu. You cannot contract hepatitis C from coughing, sneezing, sharing utensils, kissing, hugging, holding hands, or breastfeeding.
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine yet for hepatitis C. The best way to prevent becoming infected with the virus is by not engaging in behaviors that may transmit the disease, especially injecting drugs.
Hepatitis C can spread through sex, but it is not considered to be a major mode of transmission. A person's risk for contracting hepatitis C from sex is increased if they have multiple partners, engage in anal sex, and/or have a sexually transmitted infection.
Explore interactive models that show how the hepatitis C virus (HCV) infects hepatocytes (liver cells), causing inflammation and scarring of the liver over time.
Chronic hepatitis means that liver inflammation persists for six months or longer. This is in contrast to acute hepatitis, which is a short-term infection that lasts a few weeks to months. Chronic hepatitis can cause serious health problems, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.
This term refers to scarring of the liver caused by long-term inflammation, often from chronic viral hepatitis or excessive alcohol use. In cirrhosis, the scar tissue prevents the liver from functioning normally, and this may eventually lead to liver failure and even death.
This term refers to any germ or organism that infects the liver, including a virus, bacteria, parasite, or fungus. Depending on the specific infecting organism, the liver will be affected differently—for instance, a person may experience only mild elevations in their liver enzymes or experience acute liver failure or cirrhosis.
Viral hepatitis means inflammation of the liver (a large organ located in the upper right side of the abdomen) due to a viral infection. The most common types of viral hepatitis in the United States are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Symptoms of viral hepatitis may include fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), nausea, vomiting, and dark-colored urine.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C prevalence estimates 2013-2016. Updated November 6th, 2018.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C questions and answers for health professionals. Updated July 2, 2019.
Callendret B, Walker CM. Will there be a vaccine to protect against the hepatitis C virus? Gastroenterology. 2012;142(6):1384–1387. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2012.02.010
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexual transmission and viral hepatitis. Updated September 21, 2020.
Talwani R, Gilliam B, Howell C. Infectious Diseases and the Liver. Clin Liver Dis. 2011;15(1):111-130. doi:10.1016/j.cld.2010.09.002
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Viral Hepatitis? Reviewed July 28th, 2020.
American Liver Foundation. Diagnosing hepatitis C.
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