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Hepatitis Resource Center


Hepatitis C

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Approximately 600,000 Californians ... More than 4,000,000 Americans... about 170,000,000 people worldwide ... have been infected with the Hepatitis C Virus



The Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a blood-borne pathogen.  This means that the virus survives in the blood stream of an infected person and can be spread through contact to someone else, typically by an exposure that enters the bloodstream of another person.  An example of this would be individuals who inject drugs into their body and pass the syringe/needle to someone else to use.  Prior to 1992, blood transfusions from an infected person could cause a person to become infected to hepatitis C. 

Hepatitis C is not spread to another person through casual contact such as drinking from water glasses or sharing eating utensils.  It is certainly not airborne. 

Hepatitis C is caused by a small virus that can enter the body of a person and cause both acute and chronic infection. About one-third of adults with acute infection develop clinical symptoms and jaundice. Chronic hepatitis C is marked by the persistence of the hepatitis C virus in the blood for at least six months after the onset of infection. The chronicity rate of hepatitis C averages 70-80 percent, but varies by age, sex, race, and immune status. Most patients with chronic hepatitis C have few if any symptoms, the most common being fatigue, which is typically intermittent.

The major long-term complications of chronic hepatitis C are cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease, and liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), which develop only in a proportion of patients and only after many years or decades of infection.

The course of hepatitis C is variable, the severity of illness raging from a transient, self-limited and asymptomatic infection to a chronic, progressive liver disease that leads ultimately to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

What are the risk factors for hepatitis C? How does a person get this infection?

The transmission of hepatitis C occurs when blood from an infected person enters the body of a person who does not have the hepatitis C virus.

Recommendations for Testing Based on Risk of Infection:

High Risk of Infection

  • Injecting drug users

  • Recipients of clotting factors made before 1987

Intermediate Risk of Infection

  • Hemodialysis patients

  • Recipients of blood and/or solid organs before 1992

  • People with undiagnosed liver problems

  • Infants born to infected mothers (after 12-18 months old)

Low Risk of Infection

  • Healthcare/public safety workers (after known exposure)

  • People having sex with multiple partners

  • People having sex with a steady infected partner

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What factors should you know about preventing hepatitis C or spreading hepatitis C?
  • There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C.

  • Do not shoot drugs; if you shoot drugs, stop and get into a treatment program. If you can’t stop, never share needles, syringes, water, "works", and get vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

  • Do not share personal care items that might have blood on them (razors, toothbrushes).

  • If you are a health care or public safety worker, always follow routine barrier precautions and safely handle needles and other sharps; get vaccinated against hepatitis B. (View current post-exposure prophylaxis recommendations.)

  • Consider the risks if you are thinking about getting a tattoo or body piercing. You might get infected if the tools have someone else's blood on them or if the artist or piercer does not follow good health practices.

  • HCV can be spread by sex, but this is rare. If you are having sex with more than one steady sex partner, use latex condoms* correctly and every time to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. You should also get vaccinated against hepatitis B.

  • If you are HCV positive, do not donate blood, organs, or tissue.

Can chronic hepatitis C be treated?

There are a number of available treatments for chronic hepatitis C today. It is important to have a through evaluation by a medical provider experienced in managing and treating patients with this disease. Not all people with hepatitis C need to be treated. It is important to find out the status of your hepatitis.

In past decade, the outcomes of treatment have significantly improved. Although there are side effects with these therapies, sometimes the benefit is well worth the time and commitment. The newest therapies are called pegylated interferons. These interferons are injectables and are taken one time per week. The one currently approved by the FDA is called PEG-Intron by Schering. Another pegylated interferon is expected to approved soon and will be called PEGASYS by Roche. Each of these interferons has the highest efficacy or potential for response when used in combination with a capsule or tablet called ribavirin. Sometimes patients are not able to take the ribavirin due to other medical conditions. In these cases, a monotherapy, either the pegylated interferons mentioned or Infergen (interferon) may be appropriate. Ask your doctor if these treatments would be right for you.

Get Vaccinated!

Two of the hepatitis viruses are potentially preventable through vaccination – Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B. We recommend that everyone ask their physician about vaccination to prevent these diseases.