What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus, or HCV. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the hepatitis C infection can be mild lasting a few weeks, or it can become a chronic, long-term illness causing a multitude of health problems. 

How Do You Get Hepatitis C?

The virus is mostly transmitted through exposure to infected blood. 

This can happen through blood transfusions, injecting drugs with unclean needles, 

receiving tattoos or piercings from unreliable sources, certain invasive beauty trends, 

and through the exchange of bodily fluids during sex.

Please note that the sexual transmission of HCV is a lot less common than it is for other types of hepatitis. 

HCV has rarely been found in semen and vaginal fluids. 

However, when someone carries the virus, their chances of spreading it are higher if they also have an additional STD. 

Early symptoms

Only around 1 in every 3 or 4 people will have any symptoms during the first 6 months of a hepatitis C infection. This stage is known as acute hepatitis C.

If symptoms do develop, they usually occur a few weeks after infection. Symptoms may include:

Around 1 in 5 people who experiences symptoms will also have yellowing of the eyes and skin. This is known as jaundice.

In around 1 in 4 people infected with hepatitis C, the immune system will kill the virus within a few months and the person will have no further symptoms, unless they become infected again.

In the remaining cases, the virus persists inside the body for many years. This is known as chronic hepatitis.

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Later symptoms

The symptoms of long-term (chronic) hepatitis C can vary widely. In some people, symptoms may be barely noticeable. In others, they can have a significant impact on their quality of life.

The symptoms can also go away for long periods of time and then return.

Some of the most common problems experienced by people with chronic hepatitis C include:

  • feeling tired all the time
  • joint and muscle aches and pain
  • feeling sick
  • problems with short-term memory, concentration and completing complex mental tasks such as mental arithmetic – many people describe this as “brain fog”
  • mood swings
  • depression or anxiety
  • indigestion or bloating
  • itchy skin 
  • abdominal pain

If left untreated, the infection can eventually cause the liver to become scarred (cirrhosis). Signs of cirrhosis can include jaundice, vomiting blood, dark poo, and a build-up of fluid in the legs or abdomen.

Read more about the complications of hepatitis C.

When to seek medical advice

Seek medical advice if you persistently have any of the later symptoms above, or if they keep returning. They may recommend having a blood test that can check for hepatitis C.

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