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Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a serious liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus. It’s usually transferred through coming into contact with the blood of someone who has hepatitis C.

Types of hepatitis C

Hepatitis C can be:

  • Acute: a short-term illness that you can get soon after you’re exposed to infected blood
  • Chronic: a long-term or lifetime infection that can lead to serious liver problems.

Around 75% to 85% of people who have acute hepatitis C develop chronic hepatitis C infection. The rest recover without treatment.

You can have chronic hepatitis C without having any symptoms.

What causes hepatitis C?

Most people with hepatitis C are infected through the transfer of blood from someone with the virus – even microscopic amounts of blood can transfer the virus. In Australia, it’s estimated about 80% of new cases of hepatitis C result from unsafe injecting of drugs. 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 with hepatitis C if you have:

  • ever used intravenous drugs
  • had sex with someone with hepatitis C
  • received a blood transfusion in Australia before 1990, or in a country with a high rate of hepatitis C
  • had a needle stick or other injury
  • had a tattoo or piercing in a facility with poor hygiene
  • spent a long time on dialysis
  • have HIV.

Hepatitis C symptoms

Acute hepatitis C

Most people with acute hepatitis C don’t have any symptoms. However, you may experience:

Symptoms usually appear six or seven weeks after exposure to the virus.

Chronic hepatitis C

Some people have chronic hepatitis C for many years without knowing it or having any symptoms. But the virus can still be causing serious damage to their liver and they can still pass it on to other people.

Chronic hepatitis C can lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) or liver cancer. Some people with chronic hepatitis C end up needing a liver transplant.

Diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis C

You should see a doctor if you think you might have hepatitis C.

If blood tests show you have it, you will often be prescribed medication. New drugs are now available in Australia that can cure up to 95% of people with hepatitis C, with few side effects.

If you have an acute infection the medication will reduce the chances of it developing into chronic hepatitis C.

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 avoid alcohol if you have hepatitis.

Hepatitis C prevention

There’s no vaccination against hepatitis C.

Practicing safe sex and avoiding blood-to-blood contact can help prevent it.

You should also avoid sharing needles, syringes or other equipment when injecting medication or drugs.

If you have hepatitis C, you cannot donate blood or sperm.

Last reviewed: July 2017

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