Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic.”
Acute hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis C virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the hepatitis C virus remains in a person’s body. Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.
In 2006, there were an estimated 19,000 new hepatitis C virus infections in the United States. However, the official number of reported hepatitis C cases is much lower. Many people who are infected never have symptoms and therefore never come to the attention of medical or public health officials. An estimated 3.2 million persons in the United States have chronic hepatitis C virus infection. Most people do not know they are infected because they don’t look or feel sick. Approximately 75%–85% of people who become infected with hepatitis C virus develop chronic infection.
Hepatitis C is spread when blood from a person infected with the hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with the hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
People can become infected with the hepatitis C virus during such activities as:
* Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs
* Needlestick injuries in healthcare settings
* Being born to a mother who has hepatitis C
Less commonly, a person can also get hepatitis C virus infection through:
* Sharing personal care items that may have come in contact with another person’s blood, such as razors or toothbrushes
* Having sexual contact with a person infected with the hepatitis C virus Hepatitis C is spread when blood from a person infected with the hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected.
Approximately 70%–80% of people with acute hepatitis C do not have any symptoms. Some people, however, can have mild to severe symptoms soon after being infected, including:
* Loss of appetite
* Abdominal pain
* Dark urine
* Clay-colored bowel movements
* Joint pain
* Jaundice (yellow color in the skin or eyes)
Several different blood tests are used to test for hepatitis C. A doctor may order just one or a combination of these tests. Typically, a person will first get a screening test that will show whether he or she has developed antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. (An antibody is a substance found in the blood that the body produces in response to a virus.) Having a positive antibody test means that a person was exposed to the virus at some time in his or her life. If the antibody test is positive, a doctor will most likely order a second test to confirm whether the virus is still present in the person's bloodstream. "Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public." Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 6/9/09. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Web. 9/2/11.