Hepatitis C is a type of liver inflammation caused by a virus. It's most often transmitted via intravenous drug use—that is, when people share used needles with others who are already infected by the virus and come in contact with contaminated blood.1 Though less common, it's also possible for the virus that causes hepatitis C to be spread from mother to infant during pregnancy, as well as during via sexual intercourse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 3 million people are currently living with Hepatitis C in the United States, and in 2016 nearly 3,000 new cases were reported.1 However, because Hepatitis C so often goes undiagnosed in people—many people don't realize they're infected—the CDC places the estimated number of new cases in 2016 closer to 41,000.1
It's clear that hepatitis C is more prevalent than many people realize, especially among people who use intravenous drugs—studies have suggested that as many as 38% to 68% of IV drug users in America have Hepatitis C.1 It's important to understand your specific risk for Hepatitis C as well as being aware of potentially serious health consequences it can cause. Armed with this kind of knowledge, you'll be more equipped to protect yourself and your sexual partner(s).
Risks Factors for Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C most commonly occurs in certain at-risk populations of people.1,2 This includes:
- People who use injection drugs (currently or formerly—even if only one time several years ago)
- People born between 1945 and 1965
- People who received clotting factor concentrates made before 1987, before more advanced manufacturing methods for these products were in use
- People who received blood transfusions or solid organ transplants before July 1992 (before this date, hepatitis C was often spread via blood and organ donation because of less regulated donation systems)
- People who are on chronic hemodialysis
- Healthcare workers and first responders who have accidental needle sticks
- People who have received blood or organs from a donor that tests positive for hepatitis C
- People who test positive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Children who are born to women who test positive for hepatitis C
- People who are incarcerated
- People who snort drugs (currently or formerly)
- People who get tattoos at unlicensed and unregulated tattoo parlors or by unlicensed individuals
- Women who are pregnant who has symptoms of or high risk factors for hepatitis C (in general, however, a hepatitis C screen is not considered a routine part of prenatal care)
The CDC recommends that the above people should get tested for Hepatitis C in order to rule out the illness or initiate treatment as soon as possible. While up to 15% to 25% of people who become infected by the hepatitis C virus will eventually clear it from their bodies and not go on to develop chronic infection, it's not clear why this happens in some people and not others.1 The reality is, most people will have the virus—and the risk of potential health complications associated with it—for life.
Complications and Consequences Associated with Hepatitis C
For some people, a hepatitis C infection causes only an acute illness. However, as many as 85% of all people infected with the virus will go on to develop a chronic health problem.1 This means that for these people, the virus will stay in the body for the remainder of their lives and may lead to a variety of health complications, many of them serious or life-threatening:
- Chronic hepatitis C. The general chronic infection can be "silent" for many years or decades, meaning that the person doesn't feel or look sick even though they're infected with the virus.3 During this time, however, severe and sometimes irreversible damage can still be occurring to their liver, and they still can pass on the hepatitis C virus to other people. When a chronic hepatitis C infection damages the liver enough to cause symptoms, these often include things like: bleeding or bruising easily; fatigue; dark urine; jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin); poor appetite; peripheral edema (swelling in the legs); unexplained weight loss; ascites (fluid build-up in the abdomen, leading to a swollen appearance); itchy skin; spider angiomas (spider-like blood vessels on the skin); and confusion, slurred speech, and decreased alertness (hepatic encephalopathy).
- Cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is a type of liver damage that can lead to scarring of the liver. This can make it harder for this important organ to function properly; the organ's primary role is to filter and detoxify the blood coming from the digestive system. In advanced stages of cirrhosis, a person can develop liver failure, where the liver stops working altogether. Some people are able to receive a liver transplant—hepatitis C is actually the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.2 However, liver failure is often fatal, even with treatment. A person is at a greater risk for developing cirrhosis if they are over 50, are male, drink alcohol, take immunosuppressive drugs, and/or are co-infected with HIV or another kind of hepatitis known as hepatitis B.1
- Liver cancer. The CDC estimates that for every 100 people with hepatitis C and cirrhosis, 1 to 5 of them will eventually develop liver cancer.1
- Mother-to-infant transmission. 1 in 6 infants who are born to mothers with hepatitis C become infected with the virus, too.1 This risk increases even more if the mother has HIV and hepatitis C. While there's no evidence to suggest that the hepatitis C virus can spread via breast milk, breastfeeding mothers who are hepatitis C positive should take special precautions and speak with their doctors if their nipples are cracked or bleeding. While approximately 1 in 4 infants born with hepatitis C will clear the virus on their own,4 the majority of them will become carriers of the virus. Most of these children do not need medicine, although some may be treated to prevent future liver damage. Children who become infected by hepatitis C from their mothers are at risk for spreading the virus to other people later on life.
If you're sexually active and engage in any high risk behaviors for hepatitis C or other sexually transmitted diseases, it's important to get tested for this STD—even if you aren't showing any signs or symptoms. To discover how easy it is to get quickly and accurately screened for STDs in the privacy and comfort of your own home, sign up to order your personal at-home STD testing kit now.
- (2018, November 2). Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for the Public. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm
- (2019, May 29). Hepatitis C. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hepatitis-c/symptoms-causes/syc-20354278
- (2019, March 29). Hepatitis C. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/opa/reproductive-health/fact-sheets/sexually-transmitted-diseases/hepatitis-c/index.html
- (2008). Hepatitis C in Pregnancy. Pediatrics & Child Health, 13(6), 535. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2532914