Hepatitis C is a serious, contagious infection of the liver caused by the Hepatitis C virus and usually leads to chronic liver disease. The Hepatitis C virus spreads primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic.” In 2014, an estimated 30,500 cases of acute Hepatitis C virus infections were reported in the United States. Between 2.7 and 3.9 million people in the United States have chronic Hepatitis C virus infections, and about 75 to 85 percent of people with an acute infection progress to a chronic one.
Today, most people become infected with the Hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States in 1992, Hepatitis C was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Although less common, a person also can get a Hepatitis C infection through sharing personal care items that may have come in contact with another person’s blood, such as razors or toothbrushes, and by having sexual contact with a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus.
Approximately 70 to 80 percent of people with acute Hepatitis C do not have any symptoms. However some people exhibit mild to severe symptoms, which can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, jaundice, joint pain, and clay-colored bowel movements.
Treatment depends on whether the Hepatitis C infection is acute or chronic. In about 25 percent of people with acute Hepatitis C, the infection will clear on its own. In some cases, the same medications used to treat chronic Hepatitis C may be used, but treatment does not reduce the risk of the acute infection becoming chronic. Doctors usually recommend rest, good nutrition, and fluids.
Many treatments are now available for chronic Hepatitis C. For example, a combination of two medicines, interferon and ribavirin, may be used. New drugs, such as the protease inhibitor INCIVEK®, used in combination with interferon and ribavirin, have also proven to be effective. Some of the newer treatments are more effective and have fewer side effects than older medications. Each patient should discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating hepatitis, and people with chronic Hepatitis C should be monitored regularly for signs of liver disease and evaluated for treatment.
Studies for vaccines for Hepatitis C are under way, but none are currently available. Individuals can reduce the risk of Hepatitis C infection by avoiding contact with blood or blood products. Individuals should also avoid using injected illicit drugs and sharing needles with others and should be careful when getting tattoos or body piercings. Engaging in stable, monogamous relationships can reduce the risk of infection through sexual transmission. When having sex outside of a monogamous relationship, individuals can reduce their risk of infection by practicing safe sexual behaviors.