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Hepatitis C (HCV)

April 21, 2017

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Table of Contents

What Is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an inflammation, or swelling, of the liver. Alcohol, drugs (including street drugs, over-the-counter medications, and prescription medications), poisons, and several viruses can all cause hepatitis. Viral hepatitis is the term used for any inflammation of the liver caused by a virus.

Signs of hepatitis include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin, eyes, and lining of the mouth)
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Stool that appears pale and clay-like
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Loss of appetite
  • General aching
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

What Is Hepatitis C?


Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are approximately three million Americans living with chronic (long-lasting) HCV. The World Health Organization estimates that 130 to 150 million people are chronically infected with HCV worldwide, and that three to four million more are infected each year. HCV is particularly common in North Africa, Central Asia, and East Asia.

From 15 to 25 percent of people in the general population clear HCV from their bodies without medical treatment within the first six months of becoming infected. The majority of people (75 to 85 percent) do not clear HCV and go on to develop chronic infection.

Chronic HCV may not cause any symptoms for ten years or more. However, even without symptoms, it can cause serious liver damage leading to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver failure, and death. In fact, HCV is one of the most common causes of liver disease. Cirrhosis caused by HCV is the number one reason for liver transplants in America.

How Is HCV Spread?

HCV is spread in the following ways:

  • Sharing equipment for injecting drugs
  • Sharing equipment used to snort or smoke drugs (e.g., bills, straws, pipes)
  • Sharing needles or inkwells that are used to apply tattoos
  • Receiving a transfusion of blood, blood products, or organs before 1992 in the US; in some countries, HCV can still be spread through unscreened blood or blood products
  • Having unprotected vaginal or anal sex with someone who has HCV
  • Passing the virus from an infected pregnant woman to her baby (less common)
  • Sharing personal care items that may come in contact with another person's blood, such as razors or toothbrushes (less common)

It is important to note that you cannot get hepatitis C from casual contact with someone (e.g., hugging, kissing, sharing food and drink). HCV is also not spread through breast milk.

Prevention of HCV

Unfortunately there is still no vaccine to prevent HCV infection. However, there are vaccines for two other types of hepatitis: A and B. It is strongly recommended that people with HCV get hepatitis A and B vaccinations as early as possible. See our fact sheets on hepatitis A and hepatitis B for more information.

Perinatal or mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HCV is uncommon. A pregnant woman may pass HCV to her baby in about five out of every hundred cases. Studies have found that the risk of perinatal transmission of HCV is three to four times higher in women living with HIV. There is currently no known treatment that will prevent the transmission of HCV from mother to child.

The best way to prevent HCV infection is to avoid being exposed to blood that is infected with HCV. Do not share equipment to use drugs and make sure tattoo artists use sterile needles and inkwells. Practicing safer sex is also a good idea; you can find tips to protect yourself in our Safer Sex fact sheet.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.


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