What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is caused by a virus that damages the liver. The virus is spread through blood to blood contact. Sometimes hep C is a short-term infection that only lasts a few months. For most people, hep C will become a chronic infection that lasts a lifetime, unless treated.
Over time, hep C can cause many health problems including liver scarring, liver cancer, liver failure and even death. However, many people do not know they have hep C because they do not experience warning signs or symptoms; the virus can be in your body for a long time without causing noticeable symptoms.
Hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood contact. You can get or spread hep C through things like:
- Sharing needles or other equipment used to inject drugs,
- Being born to a mother who has hep C,
- Receiving a tattoo or piercing with equipment that has not been sterilized properly, or
- Sharing straws or other equipment for snorting drugs.
Less commonly, you can get hep C by:
- Sharing personal care items that may come into contact with blood, like razors or toothbrushes,
- Having sexual contact with a person who has hep C, or
- Being injured with a needle stick in a health care setting.
Who is at most at risk for hepatitis C?
- People who currently use or have ever used injection drugs,
- Baby boomers (born 1945-1965),
- People who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992,
- Hemodialysis patients or people who spent many years on dialysis for kidney failure,
- People who received body piercing or tattoos in a unlicensed setting,
- People who have been incarcerated,
- People with known exposures to the hepatitis C virus, such as:
- People exposed to hepatitis C in a healthcare setting
- Recipients of blood or organs from a donor who tested positive for the hepatitis C virus
- People living with HIV, and
- Children born to mothers who have hepatitis C.
Early symptoms of hepatitis C may show up six to seven weeks after exposure. Early symptoms of hep C can include:
- Stomach pain
- Clay-colored bowel movements (poop)
- Dark urine (pee)
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Joint and muscle pain
- Loss of appetite
- Yellow skin and/or eyes (jaundice)
- Elevated liver enzymes
Many people do not have symptoms when they first get hep C.
Over a period of years or decades, hepatitis C can lead to liver scarring, called fibrosis, and can contribute to a variety of health problems including chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating, depression, joint and muscle pain, skin conditions, diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease and more.
Some 20-30% of people living with chronic hepatitis C will develop irreversible liver damage, known as cirrhosis, which may lead to liver failure, liver cancer and death.
If you think you have been exposed to hepatitis C, get tested. There are many no-cost and low-cost testing sites throughout the Denver metro area.
Newer hep C treatment options with fewer side effects are available, and it can be cured if treated effectively.
All types of hepatitis C can be treated through antiviral medication prescribed by a doctor. New medications for hep C can cure more than 95% of people and have few side effects. For most people, treatment involves taking 1-3 pills each day for 8-12 weeks.
To get started, call the Infectious Disease Clinic at (303) 602-8762. We offer hep C appointments on Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons.
What does it cost?
Hepatitis C treatment is typically covered through insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Patients without insurance may qualify to get hep C medications for free. If you lack insurance, Denver Health enrollment services can help.
Is hepatitis C curable?
Yes! More than 95% of people who complete treatment are cured of hep C. However, you can still get hep C again. Talk to your doctor about how often you should be retested.
If you've ever had hep C it's important to know that you will always test positive on a hep C antibody test. The hep C antibody tests to see if you have ever been exposed to the virus. This does not necessarily mean that you still have hep C. Talk to your doctor about what tests you should have done after you’ve been cured.
There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. To avoid getting infected:
- Do not share syringes or equipment used to inject or snort drugs.
- Use new sterile syringes and other equipment for injection drug use.
- Do not share needles or equipment used for piercings or tattoo.
- Get tattoos and piercings done by licensed professionals.
- Use condoms during sex.
- Follow safety precautions and wear protective clothing and gloves when disposing of contaminated sharp objects.
- Do not share finger or toenail clippers, razors or toothbrushes.
For more information, call the Infectious Disease Clinic at Denver Public Health at (303) 602-8762.
Download a printable version of Hepatitis C facts.Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention