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Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus. Worldwide, health experts estimate that 180 million people have chronic hepatitis C, with more than 4 million of those cases in the United States.
Hepatitis C, like all forms of hepatitis, can damage the liver. Of people infected, 55 to 85 percent will develop chronic infection, and 75 percent of those with chronic infection will develop chronic liver disease.
People can get hepatitis C from infected blood or body fluids. Today, the most common mode of transmission is needle-sharing during intravenous drug use, and most new infections now occur among intravenous drug users.
Since 1992, when reliable blood screening procedures became available, the risk of transmission of hepatitis C by blood transfusion has fallen to less than one per million units of transfused blood, according to the CDC.
Rarely, the virus can be transmitted through sexual intercourse. In addition, an infected pregnant woman can infect her unborn baby.
Hepatitis C is not transmitted through shaking hands, coughing, sneezing, breastfeeding, or sharing cups and utensils.
Most people with acute or chronic hepatitis C have few, if any, symptoms and are not even aware they are infected. If symptoms are present, they may include
Symptoms of acute hepatitis C, if they appear at all, generally appear 6 to 12 weeks after exposure to the virus.
Despite a lack of apparent symptoms, some people with chronic hepatitis C may develop serious liver disease that is not initially apparent. In the United States, chronic hepatitis C infection is the leading cause of cirrhosis (severe liver disease) and liver cancer, both of which can be fatal.
Health care providers can diagnose hepatitis C with a blood test.
Those diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C may be advised to undergo a liver biopsy to diagnose chronic liver disease. Unfortunately, by the time a provider diagnoses serious liver disease, liver damage can be considerable and even irreversible. This damage often results in cirrhosis (end-stage liver disease) or liver cancer.
The symptoms of liver damage may not appear for several years. Therefore, it is important for people at high risk of infection to be tested for hepatitis C, so they can start treatment as early as possible. High-risk groups include the following:
People diagnosed with hepatitis C infection will be examined for liver disease and prescribed medicine to eliminate the virus. Two medicines are used to treat hepatitis C: interferon and ribavirin. Most health experts advise using both drugs together. The response to treatment varies from individual to individual.
Around 15 to 25 percent of those infected with hepatitis C will recover completely.
Because other hepatitis viruses and alcohol use are associated with faster progression of the disease, health experts advise infected people to avoid drinking alcohol and to be vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B viruses.
Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C infection, but people can take precautions to protect themselves against becoming infected with hepatitis C virus and to prevent passing on the virus to others. The CDC recommends these steps: