Here are some of the major things you should know about hep C. We'll go into more depth on all of these topics as we move through this booklet.
"Get more information and don't panic. There are treatments for both HIV and hep C. And for hep C, the treatments can eradicate that virus from the liver completely. The treatment [may be] difficult to endure; however, there is light at the end of the tunnel if you get those great results."
-- Sherri Lewis, diagnosed with hep C in 1972
At least one out of every four people with HIV in the United States has hep C as well. That's more than 300,000 people.
Having hep C is not something to be ashamed of. Neither is having HIV. The stigma of living with these viruses is still high in much of the U.S., but you are not a bad person for having them, and you do not deserve to be judged or discriminated against because of them. (In fact, there are laws against such discrimination.)
Hep C is transmitted when blood from a person who is infected with hep C comes into direct contact with another person's bloodstream. The most common way this happens is by sharing injection drug equipment -- needles, syringes, cotton, cookers -- or by sharing straws used when snorting drugs such as cocaine. Similarly, reusing tattooing instruments can pose a risk, as can sharing any other tools that may have a person's blood on them.
Hep C can also be transmitted through sex, since many types of sexual activity can make people bleed. Blood in even small amounts can potentially transmit hep C. This means that unprotected sex (especially rough sex and bareback anal sex) and activities such as fisting can be a danger. Keep in mind that this form of hep C transmission has been seen mostly among HIV-positive men who have sex with men.
There is no vaccine that can protect a person from getting hep C.
Hep C damages your liver. Usually this damage occurs slowly, over time. You can live with hep C for 10 or 20 years (or more) before you feel any symptoms -- in fact, 80% of people living with hep C have no idea they're infected. This makes the virus especially dangerous, since it can do its damage without you or your doctor realizing it until it's almost too late.
The liver is an extremely important organ, serving a few functions that are critical to your health. The more damaged it gets, the more your health is at risk. Hep C causes your liver to scar, turning healthy cells into useless cells that make it more difficult for your liver to do its job. Without proper treatment and close monitoring, hep C can ultimately cause your liver to fail completely.
Unlike HIV, hep C is curable. Hep C treatment usually involves taking medications every day for several months without missing doses, while sometimes dealing with side effects that can be hard to handle. But when it works, it completely wipes out all of the hep C in your body.
However, treatment doesn't always work: Many different factors can affect whether hep C meds will work for you. We'll get into some of those factors later in this booklet.
Regardless of the odds, hep C meds are the best option available to prevent serious liver damage, illness and even death due to the virus. Remember that, if you have trouble with the treatment, you always have the option to stop. You can try the treatment again another time -- or, if your health allows, you can wait for new meds to be developed that you may find easier to handle.