Hepatitis C is a virus that can cause serious liver disease in an infected person. The hepatitis C virus is usually transmitted when blood from an infected person enters the bloodstream of another person (such as through sharing needles or certain sexual activities).
What causes hepatitis C?
An estimated 8 out of 10 new cases of hepatitis C in Australia result from the unsafe injecting of drugs. Even microscopic amounts of blood are enough to transmit the virus. In about 6% of cases, a pregnant mother can transfer the virus to her baby, especially if she also has HIV. Breastfeeding is usually safe for mothers who have hepatitis C.
You’re at greater risk of being infected by the hepatitis C virus if you:
- have ever used intravenous drugs
- have had a needle stick or other injury
- have had a tattoo or piercing done in a facility with poor hygiene
- have received a blood transfusion in Australia before 1990, or in a country with a high rate of hepatitis C
- spent a long time on dialysis
- have been infected with HIV
- have had sex with someone with hepatitis C (although the risk depends on the activity — activities that could lead to blood-to-blood contact, such as unprotected anal sex, are higher risk)
Hepatitis C symptoms
Most people with acute hepatitis C don’t have any symptoms. However, they may experience:
- nausea or vomiting
- loss of appetite
- abdominal pain
- joint pain
- dark urine
- clay-coloured bowel movements (poo)
- jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Symptoms usually appear 6 or 7 weeks after exposure to the virus.
Diagnosis of hepatitis C
You should see a doctor if you think you might have hepatitis C. Blood tests can show if you have a current infection.
Treatment of hepatitis C
There are some very effective options for the treatment of hepatitis C infection. They are listed on the Medicare PBS (Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme), which makes them available at a much lower cost.
Newer treatments differ from those available previously:
- they cure around 95% — or more — of people who have them (even if they have cirrhosis)
- their side effects are minimal
- treatments last just 12 weeks (in most cases)
- they involve just a few pills each day, with no injections required
Curing hepatitis C means clearing the virus from the body. It helps reduce liver inflammation and can also help reverse scarring and cirrhosis. You can be re-treated if your treatment doesn’t work the first time.
You should check with your doctor before taking any other medication or supplements, and whether you need vaccinations against hepatitis A and hepatitis B. You should also avoid alcohol if you have hepatitis. If you have liver damage, you may also need to see a liver specialist
For more information on how to get treatment, contact the National Hepatitis Info Line on 1800 437 222.
Hepatitis C prevention
There is no vaccine to protect against hepatitis C.
You should avoid sharing needles, syringes or other equipment when injecting medication or drugs.
Avoiding blood-to-blood contact, including during sex, will help prevent infection.
If you have hepatitis C, you cannot donate blood or sperm.
Last reviewed: May 2018