Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hepatitis C is spread through contact with blood from an infected person. Today, most people become infected with the hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs. For some people, hepatitis C is a short-term illness, but for more than half of people who become infected with the hepatitis C virus, it becomes a long-term, chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis C can result in serious, even life-threatening health problems like cirrhosis and liver cancer. People with chronic hepatitis C can often have no symptoms and don’t feel sick. When symptoms appear, they often are a sign of advanced liver disease. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The best way to prevent hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease, especially injecting drugs. Getting tested for hepatitis C is important, because treatments can cure most people with hepatitis C in 8 to 12 weeks.

HCV is transmitted primarily through parenteral exposures to infectious blood or body fluids that contain blood. Possible exposures include

  • Injection-drug use (currently the most common mode of HCV transmission in the United States) (2)
  • Birth to an HCV-infected mother

Although less frequent, HCV can also be spread through:

  • Sex with an HCV-infected person (an inefficient means of transmission, although HIV-infected men who have sex with men [MSM] have increased risk of sexual transmission)
  • Sharing personal items contaminated with infectious blood, such as razors or toothbrushes
  • Other health-care procedures that involve invasive procedures, such as injections (usually recognized in the context of outbreaks)
  • Unregulated tattooing
  • Receipt of donated blood, blood products, and organs (rare in the United States since blood screening became available in 1992)
  • Needlestick injuries in health-care settings

People with newly acquired HCV infection usually are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms that are unlikely to prompt a visit to a health-care professional. When symptoms do occur, they can include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored stool
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice
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