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 blood-stream 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 equipment used to inject drugs.
Other ways hepatitis C can be passed on include:
- any blood contact before, during, or after a drug injecting episode
- using contaminated equipment for tattooing and body piercing
- using other peoples 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 or by living in a house with a person who has hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is not usually sexually transmitted, but occasionally can be if there is blood-to-blood contact during sexual activities.
The first stage of infection (acute hepatitis C) is often mild, lasts less than 6 months and goes unnoticed in most people. If symptoms are experienced they may include nausea, dark urine, tiredness and 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 2-6 months of being infected. However, most people 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 often cure the infection, or at least stop people getting liver damage, it is important people with chronic hepatis C to see a clinic for assessment.
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C and it is possible to become infected with hepatitis C more than once because there are different genotypes. Antibodies produced by the body to fight the infection do not protect against further infections.
To avoid getting or passing on the virus, reduce the risk of blood-to-blood contact by:
- safer injecting behaviours and safe disposal of used equipment
- 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)
- disclosure of past practices and hepatitis C status when donating blood.
The initial screening blood test looks for antibodies to the virus. Antibodies to Hepatitis C are usually present 6 weeks after infection but may take up to 6 months to develop.
A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) blood test looks for the presence of the virus in the blood.
Liver Function Tests (LFTs) are blood tests used to monitor the ongoing condition of the liver.
Treatment is available for most people. Assessment for treatment is made on an individual basis following referral to a specialist doctor.
Treatment is usually given over a period of 6-12 months. Individual response to treatment varies and for some people the side effects of the medication can be severe. Most people will be completely clear of the virus after treatment.
For more information contact the Centre for Disease Control's Clinic 34.
Last updated: 12 May 2016