Hepatitis C is a disease caused by a virus. Hepatitis C virus is one of many different viruses that can infect the liver. It lives in liver tissue and blood and can cause severe scarring and damage to the liver. This can have long-lasting health effects.
About 80% of people infected with hepatitis C develop chronic (long-lasting) infection. Without treatment, some people eventually develop liver failure or cancer of the liver.
About 20% of people infected with hepatitis C virus recover or ‘clear’ the infection without specific treatment.
Most people have no symptoms when they are first infected with hepatitis C. If there are symptoms, they usually develop within one to three months of infection and can include:
These symptoms last from days to a few weeks and then get better without treatment but this doesn’t mean that the virus has gone.
People with chronic hepatitis C infection usually appear well for many years but may develop symptoms as their liver damage progresses.
Hepatitis C is spread when the blood of an infected person enters the bloodstream of an uninfected person. The amount of blood might be so small that it’s invisible to the eye. This can happen through:
Rarely, hepatitis C may also be transmitted:
Hepatitis C is not transmitted by casual contact like hugging or holding hands; kissing on the cheek; coughing or sneezing; sharing food; or sharing eating utensils.
In Australia, people who may have a higher risk of hepatitis C infection are those who:
There is no vaccination to prevent hepatitis C. Prevention involves avoiding exposure to blood that may contain hepatitis C.
The best way to protect hepatitis C is to avoid any possible blood-to-blood contact by:
Sterile needles and syringes can be obtained from your local needle and syringe program. These are free, anonymous and confidential services. You can also get sterile needles and syringes from some pharmacies.
Hepatitis C is detected by a blood test.
New treatments for hepatitis C became available in Australia from 1 March 2016. These medicines, called direct acting antivirals (DAAs):
In contrast, the previously available treatments were less effective, frequently had severe side effects and injections were required for 6 to 12 months.
Hepatitis C treatment improves people’s liver health by stopping liver damage caused by the hepatitis C virus and even reversing some of the damage that has already occurred. Treatment also means that the person can no longer transmit heptatitis C virus to another person.
People living with hepatitis C virus should see their general practitioner (GP) about getting treated. A liver biopsy is no longer required before starting treatment.
To reduce the risk of further liver damage, people with hepatitis C should:
If you have been diagnosed with hepatitis C it is important to tell people who may also have been exposed so they can be tested. Your doctor can help you to decide who may be at risk and help you to contact them. If you wish, your doctor can make the contact for you, while also keeping your identity confidential.
If you are a health care worker you should ensure that you do not pass hepatitis C on to patients. Speak to your doctor, professional body or your employer. Further information is available in the Australian National Guidelines for the Management of Health Care Workers known to be Infected with Blood-Borne Viruses.
Doctors, hospitals and laboratories must notify new cases of hepatitis C to the local public health unit. This information is kept confidential and is used to better understand who is at risk of the disease and to help control further spread.