What is hepatitis C virus infection?
Hepatitis C is a disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
What are the symptoms?
Most people who have HCV infection feel well, have no symptoms, and do not know they have the disease.
Some people may have a brief illness with symptoms usually appearing 6 to 12 weeks after being infected with the virus.
Symptoms of acute HCV infection may include:
- jaundice (yellow skin or eyes);
- abdominal pain;
- dark urine;
- loss of appetite; and
Others may experience long-term health concerns such as tiredness, lack of energy, or digestive problems.
How common is hepatitis C virus infection?
In Canada, about 1 in every 100 people are infected with HCV.
Many people with HCV infection have not been tested and do not know they have the disease. There are about 2,500 new cases of HCV infection identified in B.C. each year.
People at higher risk of having HCV infection include the following:
- People who have used injection drugs or shared drug use equipment.
- People who received a blood transfusion or blood product before May 1992.
- People who received blood-derived coagulation products before July 1988, or intravenous immunoglobulin products prior to 1997.
- People who received an organ or tissue transplant before 1990.
All blood products and donors in Canada are now screened for HCV. The risk of infection from a blood transfusion or blood products is now very low, estimated at less than 1 in 500,000 units of blood donated.
There is a risk of getting HCV infection in countries where the blood supply is not tested or when medical equipment contaminated with the virus is used.
How can I tell if I have hepatitis C virus infection?
After HCV infects your body, antibodies to the virus appear in your blood and these can be detected by a blood test. A positive antibody test means that you have been infected with the virus at some point in time. Another blood test will then be done to determine if you are still infected with the virus.
About 1 in 4 people infected will naturally clear the virus from their body and recover from the infection. The majority of people infected do not clear the virus and will be infected for the rest of their lives.
How is the hepatitis C virus spread?
HCV infection is usually spread by blood-to-blood contact with infected blood. Infection can occur through the following:
- Illegal drug use including sharing drug snorting, smoking or injection equipment, such as needles and syringes, straws and pipes.
- Exposure to blood and blood products, including receiving a transfusion of blood or a blood product in a country where the blood supply is not tested for HCV. In Canada, this applies to blood and blood products received before 1992.
- An accidental poke with a needle or syringe used by someone with HCV infection.
- From a mother to her baby before or during birth (about 5 per cent of the time).
- Skin-piercing events such as tattoos, body piercing, acupuncture or electrolysis, if the equipment is not properly sterilized.
Other, less common ways HCV is spread is through:
- Sexual intercourse, especially if blood or open sores are present.
- Sharing toothbrushes, dental floss, razors, nail files or other items, which could have tiny amounts of blood on them.
There is a very low but real risk of spreading the virus through other body fluids, such as semen or vaginal secretions. The risk increases if blood is mixed in with these secretions.
At this time, there is no vaccine to prevent people from getting HCV infection.
How is hepatitis C virus not spread?
HCV is not known to be spread by the following:
- casual contact, such as in an office setting;
- coughing or sneezing;
- physical contact such as hugging and kissing;
- using the same dishes or cutlery;
- swimming in a chlorinated pool when you have cuts or scrapes or when you are menstruating;
- being bitten or stung by an insect, which then bites or stings someone else; or
- the healthy skin of others coming into contact with your body fluids such as saliva, urine, feces or vomit.
Breastfeeding is not considered to be a risk for the spread of HCV. However, infected nursing mothers whose nipples are bleeding or cracked should consider not breastfeeding until after they have healed, since the virus could be spread through blood.
What should I do if I prick myself with a dirty needle?
If you prick yourself with a dirty needle, you can take these steps:
- If possible, keep the wounded area lower than your heart to promote bleeding.
- Wash the area well with soap and water.
- Go to the nearest hospital emergency department immediately for care.
What is the treatment for hepatitis C virus infection?
People with chronic HCV infection should see their health care provider regularly, and they should have their blood tested to see how their liver is functioning. They may also be referred to a specialist for further testing and assessment.
Some people with HCV infection will be eligible for treatment that may clear the virus from their body. Some people with severe liver damage will require a liver transplant.
If I have hepatitis C, can I be protected against other diseases?
Yes. Vaccines that protect you from hepatitis A, hepatitis B, pneumococcal disease, and influenza are provided free to people infected with HCV. You can get these vaccines from your local public health unit or health care provider.
For More Information
See the following:
- HealthLinkBC File #12d Inactivated Influenza (Flu) Vaccine
- HealthLinkBC File #25a Hepatitis B Vaccine
- HealthLinkBC File #33 Hepatitis A Vaccine
- HealthLinkBC File #40b Living Well with Hepatitis C Virus Infection
- HealthLinkBC File #62b Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine
For more information on hepatitis C, visit the Canadian Liver Foundation website at www.liver.ca or call toll-free 1-800-856-7266.