STD info

The Basics

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).

When people first get hepatitis C it is called an acute (new) infection. Some people who get acute hepatitis C clear the virus on their own (the body gets rid of it). Other people who get an acute hepatitis C infection develop a chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infection over time.

Where does hepatitis C live?

In males and females:

  • Blood
  • Saliva
  • Spinal fluid (fluid in your spine)
  • Urine (pee)

In males:

  • Semen (sperm/cum)

In females:

  • Vaginal fluids (fluid that comes out the vagina, particularly when a woman is aroused)
  • Menstrual fluid (blood or fluid that comes out of the vagina during your period)

Hepatitis C virus can live outside the body for up to four days.

How common is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is the most common hepatitis infection in the United States. There are around 17,000 acute (newly infected) cases of hepatitis C each year. Currently, there are 2.7 - 3.9 million people in the US living with chronic (long term) hepatitis C infection.


Symptoms and Disease

If I have hepatitis C, will I develop symptoms?

Many people do not have symptoms. 70-80% of people who get hepatitis C do not have symptoms. A person can have hepatitis C for many years without having symptoms.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

There are different symptoms for acute (newly infected) and chronic (long-term) infections.

Acute symptoms include:

  • Jaundice (a yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Fatigue (feeling tired)
  • Nausea and loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine

Chronic symptoms include:

  • Jaundice (a yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Fatigue (feeling tired)
  • Nausea and loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Swollen stomach or ankles
  • Itching
  • Dark urine
  • Fluid retention
  • Abnormal liver enzyme levels (tests are done by a doctor or other healthcare professional)
  • Muscle weakness
  • Scarring of the liver

How quickly do the symptoms of hepatitis C develop?

Acute infection: hepatitis C can be detected in the blood 1-3 weeks (some say 2-3 weeks, other 1-2 weeks) after infection. Symptoms usually show up on 8-9 weeks after infection.

Chronic infection: it may take many years for symptoms to show up.

What can happen if I don't get treated for hepatitis C?

There is no treatment for acute (new) hepatitis C infections. Some people who get acute hepatitis C can clear the virus from their body. More than half of people with an acute infection fo not clear the virus and end up having chronic hepatitis C.

Untreated chronic hepatitis C infection can cause:

  • liver disease
  • cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
  • liver cancer
  • death

There are medications available for chronic (long-term) hepatitis C.

Transmission

How is hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C is spread by direct contact with blood and through body fluid containing blood. It is usually spread non-sexually. Non-sexually, hepatitis C can be transmitted through:

  • Sharing needles or other injecting material with infected blood
  • Sharing tattoo, body piercing, or acupuncture needles
  • Accidental needle sticks that has been used by a person with hepatitis C
  • Sharing items that may have blood on them (toothbrushes, dental floss, razors, nail files)

It is not usually spread through sexual contact. When it is spread through sexual contact, you can get it through:

  • Performing oral-anal sex
  • Vaginal sex (both partners)
  • Anal sex (both partners)
  • It is more likely to occur in the case of trauma (e.g. rape or rough sex) or when at least one partner has another STD

Hepatitis C can also be passed from mother to child during pregnancy.

How can I prevent getting hepatitis C?

There are several things you can do to prevent getting hepatitis C:

  • Abstain from (avoid) sexual activity
  • If you have vaginal or anal sex, use a latex male condom or female condom
  • If you have oral sex, use condoms or a latex or plastic barrier
  • Avoid direct contact with body fluids (blood or any fluid containing blood)
  • Don't share objects such as needle, razors, or toothbrushes if there's a chance they might be infected

For more tips, visit our Protect Page.

If I have hepatitis C, how can I prevent giving it to someone else?

There are several things you can do to prevent giving someone else hepatitis C:

  • Abstain from (avoid) sexual activity
  • If you have vaginal or anal sex, use latex male condoms or female condoms
  • If you have oral sex, use condoms or a latex or plastic barrier
  • Don't share your needles, razors, or toothbrushes if there's a chance they might be infected
  • Do not donate blood, body organs, tissue, or semen
  • Cover cuts or sores to prevent spreading infectious blood

For more tips, visit our Protect Page.

Can I still infect others with hepatitis C if I don't have symptoms?

Yes. If you have hepatitis C but don't have any symptoms, you can still infect other people with the virus.

Tests, Results, & Treatment

How long do I have to wait to get tested for hepatitis C?

You should wait at least 10 weeks to get tested for hepatitis C. If you want to be as sure as possible that the test results are correct, wait until 6 months after the day when you could have been infected. By this time, over 97% of people with the virus will test positive.

How do you test for hepatitis C?

There are two blood tests that can detect a hepatitis C infection:

Antibody test: An antibody test will be done first. It tests for the material your body makes in response to a hepatitis C infection. It takes awhile for your body to start making antibodies- that's why you won't test positive the day after you were infected.

RNA test: When an antibody test is positive, a RNA test is done to test for the actual virus in the your blood. If your body has cleared (gotten rid of) the virus, you might test positive on the antibody test but negative for the RNA test.

Where can I get tested for hepatitis C?

You can get tested at a doctor's office. You can also go to a clinic that tests for hepatitis C. See our Test Page to get more information and search for clinics near you.

Is hepatitis C curable?

Although there are no medications that can cure hepatitis C, sometimes the body clears (gets rid of) the infection on its own.

What is the treatment for hepatitis C?

You should talk to a doctor about treatment options. Some people with chronic (long-term) hepatitis C are treated with antiviral medications, such as peginterferon or ribavirin.

Even if a doctor or other healthcare professional says you don't need treatment, people with either acute (new) or chronic (long-term) hepatitis C should have regular blood tests to see how their liver is functioning.

Can I use medication I already have to treat hepatitis C?

No. If your medication is old or the wrong type, it will not help you.

Can I share my hepatitis C medication with my partner?

No. Treatment options for chronic hepatitis C vary from patient to patient and it is important that you take only the medication your doctor prescribes to you. Taking the wrong medication can damage your liver. If your partner needs medication, he or she will need to go to a doctor or other healthcare professional.

Do I need to do anything after I'm cured for hepatitis C?

There is no specific cure for hepatitis C, but often people can clear it (body gets rid of it). If a doctor tells you that you have cleared the hepatitis C, continue to get tested to make sure you have not been re-infected.

Partner Notification

Should I notify my partner(s) if I have hepatitis C?

Yes, if you feel safe doing so. hepatitis C is most likely to be spread through needle sharing, needle sticks, or childbirth. But, you can also get it through sexual contact. We have different recommendations for those who have acute and chronic hepatitis C.

Who should I notify if I have hepatitis C?

There are no official rules for this. People will have different opinions on who you should notify. Here is what we suggest:

Past Partners
Acute hepatitis C: If you are diagnosed with acute hepatitis C and you have symptoms, chances are you were infected in the past 6 months. We recommend you tell anyone you have shared a needle with while using drugs. We also suggest you tell anyone you have had vaginal or anal sex in the 8 months before to your hepatitis C diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with acute hepatitis C and you do not have symptoms, tell anyone that you've had sex with or used drugs with since 6 months before your last negative hepatitis C.

Chronic hepatitis C: If you are diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, you may have been infected many years ago. Talk to a doctor about telling your past sexual partners.

Current Partners: We recommend you tell anyone that you are currently using drugs with. We also suggest you tell anyone you are having vaginal or anal sex with.

Future Partners: There aren't clear recommendations on this. Sometimes, hepatitis C can be cleared from the body. If it is, you do not have to tell your future partners. If you aren't sure if it is cleared, we recommend that you notify anyone you use drugs or have vaginal or anal sex with in the future.

That's a lot of people to notify. Which of my partners are most at risk for hepatitis C?

We recommend that you tell your current partners and anyone you did drugs with in the 8 months before you found out that you had hepatitis C. We also suggest that you tell anyone you had sex with during that time.

What We Do

So They Can Know is a free resource to help you notify your sexual partners that they may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease (STD). We provide resources for partners as well.

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