Hepatitis C

Key points

  • Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by a virus
  • The hepatitis C virus is caught by having blood-to-blood contact with an infected person
  • You might have hepatitis C and not know it
  • If it’s not treated, hepatitis C can cause serious liver damage and liver cancer
  • Treatment is really easy and cures hepatitis C in almost everyone

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by a virus. The hepatitis C virus is sometimes called hep C or HCV.

Babies and adults can catch the virus by coming into contact with a tiny amount of blood from an infected person.

Most people don’t get any symptoms when they are first infected with hep C. Sometimes people get symptoms shortly after they are infected. This is acute hepatitis C. You might feel sick for a short time and then get better. About 1 in 4 people will clear the virus out of their body with no treatment. But if you are diagnosed with acute hepatitis C, you will probably be recommended to have treatment.

Most people have chronic hepatitis C by the time they are diagnosed. This is when the virus stays in your body for more than 6 months. You might not feel sick, but the virus can do serious damage to your liver over time, leading to:

You’re more likely to develop these problems if you drink alcohol, have obesity, are male, became infected after age 40, have another type of liver disease, or have another chronic infection, such as HIV or hepatitis B.


How do you catch hepatitis C?

Adults can catch hepatitis C from:

  • sharing equipment for injecting drugs (even if you only injected once)
  • tattooing, body piercing, manicure/pedicures, or having a medical procedure using unsterile equipment
  • sharing toothbrushes or razors
  • getting stuck by a contaminated needle

You can’t get hepatitis C from kissing, hugging, sharing food, sneezing or coughing.

There is a small chance a baby can catch hepatitis C from their mother during childbirth.

You might have been diagnosed recently but you actually caught hepatitis C many years ago from injecting drugs, having a vaccination, medical or dental procedure using unsterile equipment, or a blood transfusion before 1993.

If you have hepatitis C and want to fall pregnant, talk to your doctor. It is best to cure hepatitis C before you conceive. If you have hepatitis C and you are pregnant, talk to your doctor or midwife. They can take precautions to protect the baby.


What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C often does not cause any symptoms. If you do get symptoms, they might include:

  • feeling very tired
  • aches and pains
  • fevers
  • muscle or joint pain
  • mood swings, anxiety or depression
  • feeling nauseous
  • not feeling hungry or having indigestion
  • skin rashes or itchy skin
  • dry eyes
  • dry mouth and mouth ulcers.

Many people with chronic hepatitis C don’t realise it. If they have symptoms, these will be from liver damage. You might notice symptoms such as:

  • bleeding and bruising easily
  • feeling very tired
  • not feeling hungry
  • yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • dark wee
  • itchy skin
  • fluid in the belly
  • swollen legs
  • weight loss
  • confusion
  • spider veins.

People with hepatitis C might develop diabetes, kidney disease, or problems with their blood, eyes or lymph system.

Read more about the symptoms of liver disease

How is hepatitis C diagnosed?

Hepatitis C is diagnosed with a blood test that looks for the virus. You need to ask your doctor for the test, as it is not routine.

The blood test looks for whether you have the virus in your blood now, and whether you have ever had the virus.

It takes 12 weeks after you caught the virus for it to show up in a blood test. So you might need another test in future if you think you might have been exposed.

If you do have the virus, you may have more tests to see how much damage has been done to your liver.

Read more about liver tests 


Should I be tested for hepatitis C?

It’s recommended these people are tested for hepatitis C:

  • anyone with liver disease
  • people with hepatitis B
  • people who inject drugs or who have ever injected drugs
  • people who have been in prison
  • people with tattoos or body piercing
  • people who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1990
  • people who have received some blood products before 1993
  • children born to mothers with hepatitis C
  • people infected with HIV
  • sexual partners of people with hepatitis C
  • people who have had a needlestick injury
  • people from areas where hepatitis C is common

How can I prevent hepatitis C?

You can avoid catching the hepatitis C virus by making sure you never get blood from someone else in your body.

  • Don’t share equipment to inject or snort drugs.
  • Make sure tattoo or piercing equipment is sterilised.
  • Cover any wounds.
  • Don’t share razors or toothbrushes.
  • Don’t do blood rituals, like blood brother rituals.
  • Use gloves when giving first aid.

If you might need blood products (such as during surgery or cancer treatment), it is safe in Australia. That’s because Australia screens blood products for hepatitis C.

Always make sure any procedure is done by someone who is registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.

There is a risk of catching hepatitis C if you have surgery or dental procedures or receive blood products overseas.

 

It’s very rare to catch hepatitis C from sex. But the risk is higher for people who have anal sex or if there is an open wound during sex. It’s best to use a condom to protect yourself.

If you get a needlestick injury, wash the wound carefully with soap and water and see your doctor.

Pregnant women are screened for hepatitis C antibodies during routine antenatal tests. Sometimes the antibody test is positive, but that doesn’t mean you have hepatitis C. Anyone with a positive hepatitis C antibody test must have a test for the virus itself to confirm infection. This is called a Hep C PCR test.

If you are having a baby, and you have hepatitis C, there is a very small risk of passing infection to your baby at the time of birth. Your baby is very unlikely to catch the virus from breastfeeding. Your healthcare team will discuss this with you and will recommend your baby is tested in the future. If your baby happens to get hepatitis C infection then your healthcare team will discuss treatment.


How is hepatitis C treated?

Most people can be cured of hepatitis C with a medicine you get from your doctor. This treatment can stop or even reverse liver damage. It also means you can’t give hepatitis C to someone else.

There are two different medicines available to cure hepatitis C. You just take either 1 tablet a day for 12 weeks or 3 tablets once a day for 8 weeks. It’s important to keep taking the medicine every day so it works properly.

You will then be tested again to see if the virus has gone from your blood. Some people need more medicine until they are fully cured.

You should not take hepatitis C medicine if you’re pregnant.

Read more about liver treatments

Living with hepatitis C

Almost no one needs to live with hepatitis C infection these days. Anyone diagnosed with hepatitis C can have treatment to cure the infection and prevent complications.

Anyone with any form of liver disease can protect their liver by:

  • being a healthy weight
  • eating a balanced diet and limiting intake of high sugar-containing and ultraprocessed foods
  • doing more physical activity
  • managing high blood pressure and cholesterol
  • reducing further harm to your liver from alcohol

If you are diagnosed with hepatitis C, it’s important to tell other people you’ve been in close contact with so they can be tested.

Talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B (you can get a combined vaccine).


Additional information and support


What next?

Read more about living well

References

American Liver Foundation. Hepatitis C

Australian recommendations for the management of hepatitis C virus infection; a consensus statement (June 2020)

Canadian Liver Foundation. Hepatitis C

Hepatitis Australia. Hepatitis C

Mayo Clinic. Hepatitis C

NSW Health. Hepatitis C fact sheet

Reviewed November 2022

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