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Hepatitis C: Frequently Asked Questions

May 23, 2016

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Hepatitis C test

Credit: jarun011 for iStock via Thinkstock


Table of Contents


Overview

What is hepatitis?

"Hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver. Toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, heavy alcohol use, and bacterial and viral infections can all cause hepatitis. Hepatitis is also the name of a family of viral infections that affect the liver; the most common types are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.

What is the difference between Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C are diseases caused by three different viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms, they have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver differently. Hepatitis A appears only as an acute or newly occurring infection and does not become chronic. People with Hepatitis A usually improve without treatment. Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can also begin as acute infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. There are vaccines to prevent Hepatitis A and B; however, there is not one for Hepatitis C. If a person has had one type of viral hepatitis in the past, it is still possible to get the other types.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either "acute" or "chronic."

Acute Hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the Hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.

Chronic Hepatitis C virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the Hepatitis C virus remains in a person's body. Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.


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Statistics

How common is acute Hepatitis C in the United States?

In 2014, there were an estimated 30,500 cases of acute hepatitis C virus infections reported in the United States.

How common is chronic Hepatitis C in the United States?

An estimated 2.7-3.9 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C.

How likely is it that acute Hepatitis C will become chronic?

Approximately 75%-85% of people who become infected with Hepatitis C virus develop chronic infection.


Transmission/Exposure

How is Hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with the Hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, Hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

People can become infected with the Hepatitis C virus during such activities as

  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs
  • Needlestick injuries in health care settings
  • Being born to a mother who has Hepatitis C

Less commonly, a person can also get Hepatitis C virus infection through

  • Sharing personal care items that may have come in contact with another person's blood, such as razors or toothbrushes
  • Having sexual contact with a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus

Can Hepatitis C be spread through sexual contact?

Yes, but the risk of transmission from sexual contact is believed to be low. The risk increases for those who have multiple sex partners, have a sexually transmitted disease, engage in rough sex, or are infected with HIV. More research is needed to better understand how and when Hepatitis C can be spread through sexual contact.

Can you get Hepatitis C by getting a tattoo or piercing?

A few major research studies have not shown Hepatitis C to be spread through licensed, commercial tattooing facilities. However, transmission of Hepatitis C (and other infectious diseases) is possible when poor infection-control practices are used during tattooing or piercing. Body art is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, and unregulated tattooing and piercing are known to occur in prisons and other informal or unregulated settings. Further research is needed to determine if these types of settings and exposures are responsible for Hepatitis C virus transmission.

Can Hepatitis C be spread within a household?

Yes, but this does not occur very often. If Hepatitis C virus is spread within a household, it is most likely a result of direct, through-the-skin exposure to the blood of an infected household member.

How should blood spills be cleaned from surfaces to make sure that Hepatitis C virus is gone?

Any blood spills -- including dried blood, which can still be infectious -- should be cleaned using a dilution of one part household bleach to 10 parts water. Gloves should be worn when cleaning up blood spills.

How long does the Hepatitis C virus survive outside the body?

The Hepatitis C virus can survive outside the body at room temperature, on environmental surfaces, for up to 3 weeks.

What are ways Hepatitis C is not spread?

Hepatitis C virus is not spread by sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing. It is also not spread through food or water.

Who is at risk for Hepatitis C?

Some people are at increased risk for Hepatitis C, including:

  • Current injection drug users (currently the most common way Hepatitis C virus is spread in the United States)
  • Past injection drug users, including those who injected only one time or many years ago
  • Recipients of donated blood, blood products, and organs (once a common means of transmission but now rare in the United States since blood screening became available in 1992)
  • People who received a blood product for clotting problems made before 1987
  • Hemodialysis patients or persons who spent many years on dialysis for kidney failure
  • People who received body piercing or tattoos done with non-sterile instruments
  • People with known exposures to the Hepatitis C virus, such as
    • Health care workers injured by needlesticks
    • Recipients of blood or organs from a donor who tested positive for the Hepatitis C virus
  • HIV-infected persons
  • Children born to mothers infected with the Hepatitis C virus

Less common risks include:

  • Having sexual contact with a person who is infected with the Hepatitis C virus
  • Sharing personal care items, such as razors or toothbrushes, that may have come in contact with the blood of an infected person

What is the risk of a pregnant woman passing Hepatitis C to her baby?

Hepatitis C is rarely passed from a pregnant woman to her baby. About 6 of every 100 infants born to mothers with Hepatitis C become infected with the virus. However, the risk becomes greater if the mother has both HIV infection and Hepatitis C.

Can a person get Hepatitis C from a mosquito or other insect bite?

Hepatitis C virus has not been shown to be transmitted by mosquitoes or other insects.

Can I donate blood, organs, or semen if I have Hepatitis C?

No, if you ever tested positive for the Hepatitis C virus (or Hepatitis B virus), experts recommend never donating blood, organs, or semen because this can spread the infection to the recipient.

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This article was provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Visit the CDC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
 


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