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Hepatitis C

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by an infection with a virus. The liver becomes inflamed and swollen and stops working as it should. Hepatitis C is a serious disease because the liver is needed to remove toxins that build up in the blood. Hepatitis C can destroy the liver and cause cirrhosis. It is the main cause of liver transplants in the world.

After being infected with the hepatitis C virus, 55-85% of people will develop a chronic infection. Once a chronic infection develops, 70% of people develop chronic liver disease — but less than 5% of these people die from the infection.

What Causes It?

Hepatitis C is caused by a virus. Close to 2% of Americans have been infected with the hepatitis C virus, with 2.7 million having a chronic infection. The hepatitis C virus is one of the most common causes of long-lasting liver disease in the U.S.

There are several ways to get infected with hepatitis C:

  • Sharing needles for injection drug use.
  • Accidentally getting pricked by a needle contaminated by infected blood. This sometimes happens to hospital workers.
  • Being born to a mother with hepatitis C infection.
  • Getting a blood transfusion from someone with hepatitis C infection. Before 1992, blood could not be tested for hepatitis C. Since 1992, all blood donated in the U.S. gets tested for the virus. If you had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before June 1992, ask your doctor about being tested for hepatitis C.
  • Some people on kidney dialysis have gotten hepatitis C from contamination of the equipment.
  • It’s possible to get hepatitis C from someone you live with if you share items such as razors or toothbrushes that might have had his or her blood on them.
  • A person can get hepatitis C from getting a tattoo or body piercing with dirty tools.
  • Rarely, a person can get hepatitis C from having unprotected sex with an infected person. This is more likely to happen if the infected person also has another sexually transmitted disease.

You cannot get hepatitis C from hugging or shaking hands with an infected person.

Medically updated by Cynthia Haines, MD, August 2005.

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