Hepatitis C

Hepatitis is a general term used to describe inflammation of the liver.

A variety of viruses and other substances, such as alcohol, can cause hepatitis.

The hepatitis C virus causes viral hepatitis known as ‘hepatitis C’.

How someone can be infected

The hepatitis C virus is carried in the blood and is passed on when the blood of an infected person enters the bloodstream of another person.

It only takes a very small amount of infected blood to pass the virus on.

The most common way to get hepatitis C is by sharing injecting equipment with someone who is carrying the virus.

Other ways include:

  • through sporting and other activities where there is blood contact
  • any blood contact before, during, or after a drug injecting episode
  • using contaminated equipment for tattooing and body piercing
  • using other people's personal items such as razors and toothbrushes
  • for women who are hepatitis C positive, there is a small risk of transmission to their babies during pregnancy or birth
  • blood transfusions overseas or in Australian before 1990.

Hepatitis C is not passed on by:

  • kissing
  • shaking hands
  • coughing
  • sharing household items that don't normally come into contact with blood
  • living in a house with a person who has hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C can sometimes be transmitted during sex if there is blood contact.

Symptoms

The first stage of infection (acute hepatitis C) is often mild, lasts less than six months and goes unnoticed in most people.

If symptoms occur, they may include:

  • nausea
  • dark urine
  • tiredness
  • abdominal discomfort.

Jaundice (yellow colouring of skin and eyes) is rare in hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C is cleared from the body without medical intervention in about 25% of people within two to six months of being infected.

Most people who are infected with hepatitis C develop chronic infection where the virus remains in the blood and liver.

While hepatitis C can live in the body for years without causing symptoms, long-term infection may lead to liver damage.

As treatment is available that can cure the infection, it is important for people with chronic hepatitis C to go to a clinic for assessment.

Prevention

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C and it is possible to become infected with hepatitis C more than once.

Antibodies produced by the body to fight the infection do not protect against further infections.

To avoid getting or passing on hepatitis C, reduce the risk of blood-to-blood contact by:

  • never sharing injecting equipment and disposing of used equipment safely
  • choosing a practitioner who consistently uses sterile equipment and standard infection control procedures for tattooing or piercing
  • not sharing any personal items (razor, toothbrush, tweezers, scissors)
  • disclosing your past practices and hepatitis C status when donating blood
  • getting treated and cured so that you can't pass it on.

Testing

Many people with hepatitis C do not know they are infected. It is important for people who are at risk to know their status by being tested.

The initial screening blood test looks for antibodies to the virus. Antibodies to Hepatitis C are usually present six weeks after infection but may take up to six months to develop.

A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) blood test looks for the presence of the virus in the blood.

Liver function tests are blood tests used to monitor the ongoing condition of the liver.

Treatment

Hepatitis C is treated with new medications that specifically target the virus. They are called direct-acting antivirals (DAA). DAAs clear hepatitis C from the body.

There are now new oral tablet treatments available that can successfully cure more than 90% of people infected with hepatitis C.

These new medications are available and subsidised on the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

They can be prescribed by specialists, general practitioners and nurse practitioners.

A typical course of these medications involves one to three tablets per day for eight to 12 weeks.

The tablets don't have the significant side effects that people had reported on treatment with older interferon or injection-based treatments.

Contact

For more information contact the Centre for Disease Control's Clinic 34.

Last updated: 20 March 2020

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