Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;59(1):91-92

See related article on hepatitis C.

Almost 4 million people in this country have hepatitis C. This handout will tell you what hepatitis C is and how you can avoid getting it. After you read this handout, talk with your doctor to see if you should have a blood test for hepatitis C.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a liver disease. It's caused by the hepatitis C virus, called HCV for short. HCV is in the blood of people with the infection. The virus is spread by contact with the blood of a person who has the infection.

How serious is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C can be very serious for some people, but less serious for others. Most people who get hepatitis C have the virus for the rest of their lives. Most of these people have some liver damage, but many don't feel sick. Some people with liver damage caused by HCV go on to get scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis (say: sir-oh-sis) and liver failure. These serious problems may take many years to develop.

How can I protect myself from hepatitis C?

  • Don't “shoot” or inject street drugs. If you already inject drugs, get into a treatment program and try to stop. If you can't stop, never reuse or share syringes, drug works or the water for mixing your drugs. Get vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

  • Don't share toothbrushes, razors or other personal care articles. They might have blood on them.

  • If you're a health care worker, always follow routine barrier precautions and handle needles and other sharps in a safe way. Get vaccinated for hepatitis B.

  • Consider the risk if you get a tattoo or body piercing. You can get HCV infection if the tattoo tools (or the ink) are contaminated with someone else's blood. The tattoo artist or body piercer should wash hands carefully and wear sterile gloves while working on your body.

How can I protect myself from getting hepatitis C from sex?

The best way to protect yourself against any sexually transmitted disease is to not have sex at all. Otherwise, have sex with only one steady, uninfected partner who only has sex with you.

If you're having sex with more than one steady partner, you should use a latex condom correctly every time you have sex, to help protect you and your partners from hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Hepatitis C virus is NOT spread in the following ways:

  • Breast feeding

  • Sneezing

  • Hugging

  • Coughing

  • Sharing spoons and forks

  • Sharing drinking glasses

  • Sharing food or water

  • Casual contact

Could I already have hepatitis C?

If you answer yes to even one of the following questions, you should talk with your doctor about getting a blood test for hepatitis C:

  • Did you have a blood transfusion or an organ transplant (like a kidney, a liver or a heart) before July 1992?

  • Were you ever notified that the blood you received in a transfusion may have had HCV in it?

  • Were you ever treated with a blood product for clotting problems before 1987?

  • Have you ever injected street drugs, even if it was just a few times many years ago?

  • Have you ever had long-term kidney dialysis?

Why should I get a test for hepatitis C?

If you have hepatitis C, it's important to find out early for these reasons:

  • You need to learn how to avoid giving this infection to others.

  • You need a test for liver disease so you can get treatment, if it's needed.

  • You need to learn how to protect your liver from further damage.

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Copyright © 1999 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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