Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(6):1439-1440

What is hepatitis C? How is it spread?

Hepatitis C is a virus, called HCV for short. It is spread by coming in contact with the blood of an infected person. Almost 2 percent of people in the United States have HCV infection.

HCV can cause scarring of the liver that is called cirrhosis (say: sir-oh-sis). Cirrhosis can cause liver failure and liver cancer.

What are the symptoms of HCV infection?

People are rarely sick when they first get HCV. In fact, most people can have HCV in their blood for a long time and still feel well. They may have mild symptoms, such as feeling tired a lot of the time. But even if they still feel fine, the virus may be hurting their liver.

Can people protect themselves from getting HCV?

Sometimes there is nothing you can do to protect yourself. For example, you might have the virus from a blood transfusion that you got before 1992.

However, if you do not already have HCV infection, the key to protecting yourself is to avoid exposure to infected blood. Injection drug users often get HCV infection. If you inject illegal or “street” drugs, get into a drug treatment program and try to stop. If you cannot stop, never reuse or share needles, drug works, or the water for mixing your drugs.

If you inject a medicine, such as insulin to treat diabetes, it is also important not to reuse or share those needles.

Do not share toothbrushes, razors, and other personal items, because they might have another person’s blood on them, and that blood might be infected.

It is possible to get HCV from a sexual partner, although this is rare. The only way to protect yourself against any sexually transmitted disease (STD) is to not have sex at all. The next safest way is to have sex with only one uninfected partner, who only has sex with you. If you are having sex with more than one person, using a latex condom correctly every time you have sex will help protect you and your partners from HCV and other STDs.

If you are a health care worker, always follow safety rules. Handle needles and other sharp instruments in a safe way, and be sure to get vaccinated for hepatitis B.

Note that HCV cannot be spread through breastfeeding, sneezing, or coughing. There is no evidence that HCV can be spread by sharing spoons, forks, or drinking glasses, or by sharing food or water.

How is HCV infection treated?

HCV infection is treated with a combination of two medicines (pegylated interferon and ribavirin). The treatment lasts 6 to 12 months, depending on the kind of virus you have. This treatment cures 50 to 80 percent of infected people. Check with your doctor to see if treatment might help you.

Where can I find more information about HCV?

Talk to your doctor. You can also contact one of these groups:

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