Hepatitis C is a virus that can infect the liver. If left untreated, it can sometimes cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to the liver over many years.
However, with modern treatments it’s usually possible to cure the infection, and most people with it will have a normal life expectancy.
It’s estimated around 215,000 people in the UK have hepatitis C.
You can become infected with it if you come into contact with the blood of an infected person.
Symptoms of hepatitis C
Hepatitis C often doesn’t have any noticeable symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged. This means many people have the infection without realising it.
When symptoms do occur, they can be mistaken for another condition. Symptoms can include:
- flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches and a high temperature (fever)
- feeling tired all the time
- loss of appetite
- tummy (abdominal) pain
- feeling and being sick
The only way to know for certain if these symptoms are caused by hepatitis C is to get tested.
Read more about the symptoms of hepatitis C.
How do you get hepatitis C?
The hepatitis C virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact.
Some ways the infection can be spread include:
- sharing unsterilised needles – particularly needles used to inject recreational drugs
- sharing razors or toothbrushes
- from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby
- through unprotected sex – although this is very rare
In the UK, most hepatitis C infections occur in people who inject drugs or have injected them in the past. It’s estimated around half of those who inject drugs have the infection.
Read more about the causes of hepatitis C.
Getting tested for hepatitis C
Seek medical advice if you have persistent symptoms of hepatitis C or there’s a risk you’re infected, even if you don’t have any symptoms. A blood test can be carried out to see if you have the infection.
Your local GP, sexual health clinic, genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or drug treatment service all offer testing for hepatitis C.
Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent or limit any damage to your liver, as well as help ensure the infection isn’t passed on to other people.
Read more about testing for hepatitis C.
Treatments for hepatitis C
Hepatitis C can be treated with medicines that stop the virus multiplying inside the body. These usually need to be taken for several weeks.
Until recently, most people would have taken two main medications called pegylated interferon (a weekly injection) and ribavirin (a capsule or tablet). Tablet-only treatments are now available.
These new hepatitis C medications have been found to make treatment more effective, are easier to tolerate, and have shorter treatment courses.
They include simeprevir, sofosbuvir and daclatasvir. Using the latest medications, more than 90% of people with hepatitis C may be cured.
However, it’s important to be aware that you won’t be immune to the infection and should take steps to reduce your risk of becoming infected again.
Complications of hepatitis C
If the infection is left untreated for many years, some people with hepatitis C will develop scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Over time, this can cause the liver to stop working properly.
In severe cases, life-threatening problems such as liver failure – where the liver loses most or all of its functions – or liver cancer can eventually develop.
Treating hepatitis C as early as possible can help reduce the risk of these problems occurring.
Read more about the complications of hepatitis C.
Preventing hepatitis C
There’s no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are ways to reduce your risk of becoming infected.
- not sharing any drug-injecting equipment with other people – including needles and other equipment such as syringes, spoons and filters
- not sharing razors or toothbrushes that might be contaminated with blood
The risk of getting hepatitis C through sex is very low. However, it may be higher if blood is present, such as menstrual blood or from minor bleeding during anal sex.
Condoms aren’t usually necessary to prevent hepatitis C for long-term heterosexual couples, but it’s a good idea to use them when having anal sex or sex with a new partner.