The information on Hepatitis C on this website is not designed to provide medical or professional advice. It is designed to provide information only and if you have any health questions or problems please consult a medical doctor.
The term hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. This inflammation of the liver can be caused by a number of different causes. It can be caused by viruses such as hepatitis A virus, hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus, hepatitis D virus, hepatitis E virus and hepatitis G virus. It can also be caused by excess alcohol, some chemicals, medications or drugs. This article is about the hepatitis caused by the hepatitis C virus.
What is Hepatitis C?:
Hepatitis C is a virus that lives in your blood (if you are infected) and it is passed on from one person to another when an infected person's blood enters and mixes with another person's blood and even very small amounts of blood can transfer the virus. Once the virus enters your blood, it makes your liver its home and it starts to reproduce in the liver cells, making many copies of itself. These viral copies do not kill the liver cells, rather your immune system that defends you against this infection causes the liver to get inflamed and eventually die if you do not get treatment.
Hepatitis C infection figures in Australia:
The are six major strains of Hepatitis C virus that causes Hepatitis C infection called genotypes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 and each genotype contains several sub-strains called a, b, and c. It is possible to be infected with more than one genotype at a time. In general genotypes 1, 2 and 3 are found worldwide, genotype 1 is mainly found in the United States, genotype 4 is mainly found in Northern Africa, genotype 5 is mainly found in South Africa and genotype 6 is mainly found in Asia. In Australia genotypes1a, 1b and 3a are the most common types. In Australia there is about 230 470 people infected with Hepatitis C virus and about 150 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C virus. 25% of people who get infected by the Hepatitis C virus get rid of the infection naturally without any treatment within 2 to 6months of infection. This means 75% of infected people do not clear or get rid of the Hepatitis C virus and develop chronic Hepatitis C infection. Out of this group, 20% will not experience any symptoms though they can still transmit Hepatitis C infection and 60% of those who have chronic Hepatitis C infection will develop symptoms and liver damage after about 15 years.
How is Hepatitis C infection spread?:
Hepatitis C virus is not passed on from an infected person to someone not infected through social interactions such as shaking hands, kissing, or sharing a bathroom. It is also now rare in Australia to get Hepatitis C infection through blood transfusion or organ transplant. However there are several ways in which Hepatitis C can be transmitted from an infected person to a non-infected person namely:
- In Australia the main and the commonest way for Hepatitis C infection transmission from one person to another is via sharing of needles used to inject illegal or recreational drugs. This accounts for about 80% of all new cases of hepatitis C infection.
- A needle-stick injury for example when health professionals accidentally stab themselves whilst operating on someone with Hepatitis C infection. A needle-stick injury can also occur in the community if someone accidentally gets pricked from an infected needle, for example in the park, though the risk of being infected is very low.
- Unsterilized equipment if used during procedures as such as tattooing, piercing or nail cuttings can transmit Hepatitis C if they have been used on person infected with Hepatitis C.
- Hepatitis C infection can be transmitted during or when having unprotected sex with an infected person involving blood such as having sex with an infected woman during her menstrual cycle or damage to the skin such as during anal sex. The risk of infection through penile-vaginal sex is very low.
- Hepatitis C infection can be transmitted through sharing personal items that have traces of Hepatitis C infected blood on them such as razors and toothbrushes.
- For pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, there is a low risk of transmitting Hepatitis C from an infected mother to her baby either during pregnancy or at birth and there is a very minimum risk from breast milk unless if the nipples are cracked or bleeding.
Hepatitis C infection risk:
It is important not to pass Hepatitis C infection to others and this can be done simply by avoiding blood to blood contact and reducing your risk of getting Hepatitis C infection in the first place. Your risk of getting Hepatitis C infection can be increased if you:
- Use or ever used intravenous drugs.
- Have or ever have sex with someone with hepatitis C.
- Have received a blood transfusion in Australia before 1990, or in a country with a high rate of hepatitis C.
- Have or had a needle stick or other injury with an instrument infected with Hepatitis C.
- Have or had a tattoo or piercing in a facility with poor hygiene or where unsterilized equipment is used.
- are chronic dialysis user.
- have HIV.
How do you know that you have Hepatitis C:
The only way to know if you have been infected with Hepatitis C is by having a blood test. This test will check for Hepatitis C antibodies and the amount of virus you carry. The Hepatitis C antibodies will show if you have ever been infected and the Hepatitis C viral load will show if the infection is alive and ongoing. It can take 3 to 6 months from the time of infection before this test can show an infection and so if the first test is negative, you will need a repeat test in 3 to 6 month's time to make sure.
Symptoms of hepatitis C:
Initially when you get infected with Hepatitis C you may not have any symptoms at all but in some occasions you may experience flu-like symptoms or have dark urine or your skin or eyes may turn yellowish or you may have abdominal pain, poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, tiredness, joint pain. These symptoms may resolve or go away within weeks and you will start to feel well. This recovery may mean that either the infection is gone, that is your own body has gotten rid of the Hepatitis C virus or the infection is still persisting and present. If you body clears the infection without treatment, which happens in about 20 to 30% of infected people within 6months, it means that you do not carry the Hepatitis C virus and you cannot pass any infection to others but you will carry Hepatitis C antibodies for life which do not protect you from further infection if you get exposed to Hepatitis C. After 6 months of infection and the presence of Hepatitis C virus, the illness becomes long-term or permanent or chronic Hepatitis C infection and this occurs in about 70% of people who get infected. Chronic hepatitis C if uncured will cause scarring of the liver resulting in liver cirrhosis and eventual liver failure and death. It may also result in liver cancer and in a few people with chronic hepatitis C, they maybe helped by having a liver transplant.
Treatment of Hepatitis C infection:
There is now new and very effective medications to treat Hepatitis C infection. These medications are safe with fewer side-effects and are used mainly for a short duration mainly for 3 months but can be used for up to 6months. Once treated most people will be cured however it is important to know that you can get Hepatitis C again so you always must protect yourself against Hepatitis C virus. Unlike Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B, there is currently no vaccination against Hepatitis C but you can reduce your risk of getting Hepatitis C infection by not injecting drugs, but however if you decide to inject drugs you should use your own sterile equipment including sterile needles, syringes, water and your own tourniquets, spoon, swabs and filters. Sterile and clean needles and syringes can be obtained from some pharmacies, some hospitals and from needle and syringe exchange program centers.
Hepatitis C infection Prevention:
- Practice safe sex which includes use of condoms or dam as well as use of water-based lubrication in cases where it's more likely that there will be blood-to-blood contact during sex such as during anal sex, during menstruation and during sexual practices that may involve bleeding. Care should also be taken if you have you have cuts or sores around the genitals.
- Check and make sure that body artists uses sterilized and new equipment before having body art done to you such as piercing and tattooing.
- Always do not share personal hygiene items, such as razors, toothbrushes and dental floss.
- If you work in an industry where you are exposed to Hepatitis C infection such as health-care workers, you should practice and use standard infection control procedures at work.
You are able to get help if you have Hepatitis C infection from various professionals and organizations such as:
- Gastroenterologist, Infections Disease Specialist, Hepatologists, Sexual Health Specialist.
- Sexual Health Clinics, Pharmacist.
- Hepatitis Australia: Tel 1800 437 222 (https://www.hepatitisaustralia.com) and States organizations.
- Hepatitis C is passed on when Hepatitis C infected blood enters your bloodstream.
- In Australia, most Hepatitis infections are caused by sharing needles and other drug injecting equipment during illegal or recreational drug injections.
- There is now new and effective treatments for Hepatitis C infection which can cure 90-95% of Hepatitis C infected people and also prevent transmission of Hepatitis C infection.
- You cannot donate blood or sperm if you have Hepatitis C infection and you should cease drinking alcohol.
- If you think or believe you have been exposed to Hepatitis C infection or you have been put at risk, see a doctor immediately.