Hepatitis C Basics
Basics about Hepatitis C
The word “Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is most often caused by a virus. In the United States, the most common type of viral hepatitis is Hepatitis C.
Over time, chronic Hepatitis C can lead to serious liver problems including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer.
Over 3 million people in the United States have chronic Hepatitis C but most are unaware of their infection.
Information on Testing
What to Expect When Getting Tested for Hepatitis C
- Two different types of blood tests are needed to tell if a person has Hepatitis C.
- The initial screening test is a blood test that looks for antibodies to the Hepatitis C virus. Sometimes this test is called a Hepatitis C Antibody Test.
- The test results will take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to come back, although new Rapid Antibody Tests are available in some settings.
What do the Hepatitis C Antibody Test Results Mean?
- A non-reactive or negative antibody test result means that a person is not currently infected with the Hepatitis C virus. However, if a person has been recently exposed to the Hepatitis C virus, he or she will need to be tested again.
- A reactive or positive antibody test result means that Hepatitis C antibodies were found in the blood which means a person has been infected with the Hepatitis C virus at some point in time. Most people who get infected with the virus, stay infected with Hepatitis C. This is known as chronic Hepatitis C. However, some people are able to get rid of or “clear” the virus. Once people have been infected, they will always have antibodies in their blood. This is true even if they have cleared the Hepatitis C virus.
What to do if the Hepatitis C Antibody Test is Reactive
- If the Hepatitis C Antibody Test is reactive, an additional, follow-up test will be needed to see if the Hepatitis C virus is currently in the blood.
- If the additional blood test is:
- If a person has a reactive antibody test and a positive follow-up test, he or she needs to talk to a health care provider experienced in treating Hepatitis C.
Negative—this means a person was infected with Hepatitis C, but the virus has now been cleared from his or her body.
Positive—this means a person currently has the virus in his or her blood and is chronically infected.
How do you get Hepatitis C?
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. This can happen through multiple ways.
Before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992, Hepatitis C was spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. People with clotting problems who took blood products prior to 1987 were also exposed to Hepatitis C. Sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs was and is a very efficient way to transmit the virus. People have also become infected with the Hepatitis C virus from body piercing or tattoos that were gotten in prisons, at home or in other unlicensed or informal facilities.
Although uncommon, outbreaks of Hepatitis C have occurred from blood contamination in health care settings. In rare cases, Hepatitis C may be sexually transmitted. Babies born to mothers with Hepatitis C can get the infection during childbirth. Some people do not know how or when they became infected.
Hepatitis C is not spread by casual contact, kissing, hugging, sneezing, coughing, breastfeeding or sharing food, eating utensils or glasses.
Many people with chronic Hepatitis C do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected.
Symptoms of chronic Hepatitis C can take up to 30 years to develop. When symptoms do appear, they often are a sign of advanced liver disease. Symptoms of Hepatitis C can include: fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, grey-colored stools, joint pain and/or jaundice.
Living with Chronic Hepatitis C
How is chronic Hepatitis C treated?
Medications, called antivirals, can be used to treat many people with chronic Hepatitis C. Treatment is now being improved, for many, with the addition of other medications to the standard antiviral treatment. However, not everyone needs or can benefit from treatment. It is important to be checked by a doctor experienced in treating chronic Hepatitis C. He or she can determine the most appropriate medical care. Decisions about starting treatment are based on many factors, such as the type of virus, the condition of the liver, and other health conditions. Whether or not to be treated or when to start treatment should be discussed with your doctor.
To protect your liver, you can:
- Ask your doctor before taking any prescription, over-the-counter medications, supplements or vitamins. For instance, some drugs, such as certain pain medications, can potentially damage the liver
- Avoid alcohol since it can increase the speed of liver damage
- Talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B
For more information
Fact Sheet – Living with Chronic Hepatitis C [PDF - 2 pages]