Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2010;81(11):1359-1360

See related article on hepatitis C

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a virus that can cause chronic liver disease. It can be spread through the blood of a person with hepatitis C. You can’t get it through casual contact (for example, sneezing, coughing, shaking hands, hugging, kissing, sharing utensils or drinking glasses, using public restrooms).

What are the symptoms?

Most people don’t feel sick when they are first infected with hepatitis C. If you do have symptoms, they are usually flu-like (for example, fatigue, nausea, decreased appetite, body aches, weakness, weight loss). Even if you don’t have symptoms, the virus can stay in your body for the rest of your life. It can cause liver damage, such as scarring of the liver (called cirrhosis [seh-RO-sis]). It can eventually lead to liver failure or liver cancer, and you may need a liver transplant. If you have hepatitis C, you need to see your doctor regularly to be checked for liver disease.

How can I protect myself?

Do not share needles or use illegal drugs. If you have shared needles or used illegal drugs, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you decide if you should be tested. If you or someone in your home uses injectable medicines, such as insulin, handle needles carefully and dispose of them in appropriate containers.

Do not share toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, combs, or brushes, because they may have blood on them.

The risk is low, but you can get hepatitis C through sexual contact. You should use a latex condom to lower your risk. Decreasing your number of sex partners will also decrease your risk of being infected through sex.

There is not a vaccine available for hepatitis C. Vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B. If you have hepatitis C, you should discuss these vaccines with your doctor.

How do I find out if I have it?

Talk to your doctor about concerns and risks. If needed, you can have simple blood tests to see if you have it.

How is it treated?

There are medicines to treat hepatitis C. You may need to take them for up to one year. These medicines can get rid of the hepatitis C virus in most people, but not everyone. Be sure to take the medicines your doctor gives you and tell him or her if you have any side effects. Side effects may include mild flu-like symptoms; depression; and heart, kidney, or neurologic symptoms.

If I have it, how should I take care of myself?

You should eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Talk to your doctor about all of your medicines, including over-the-counter medicines and herbal remedies, before taking them. You should not drink alcohol, because this can damage your liver.

If I have it, how can I keep from infecting other people?

Don’t donate blood, and don’t share toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, combs, or brushes. Always use a latex condom when you have sex. If you have hepatitis C, your sex partners should be tested.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Family Physicians

American Liver Foundation

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

National Institutes of Health

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