Hepatitis C guide


What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is inflammation of the liver and it's caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Chronic hepatitis C is also the most common chronic liver disease in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 3.2 million people in the United States are chronically infected and there are some 17,000 new cases of HCV infection every year.

Hepatitis C is primarily transmitted through direct contact with the blood of an infected person (e.g., blood transfusions). The virus can also be spread by sharing needles, syringes, razorblades or toothbrushes that are contaminated. Additionally, infected mothers run the risk of passing hepatitis C to their babies during during childbirth … in rare cases, the virus can also be transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex when the blood, saliva, semen or vaginal secretions of an infected partner enter the body.

While hepatitis C is not curable and there's no vaccine for it, sometimes it clears out of the body without treatment. Antiviral medications can help mitigate the effects of chronic hepatitis C infection, but chronic cases can result in severe liver damage (cirrhosis), liver cancer … even death. Learn more about the difference between acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infections.

The earlier hepatitis C is diagnosed, the more successfully it can be treated.



Hepatitis C risk factors

How do people get infected with hepatitis C?

Anyone can get hepatitis C … usually through direct contact with the blood of an infected person. The most common risk factors are:

  • A history of STDs
  • A history of unprotected sex
  • A new sexual partner
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • A sexual partner or household member with hepatitis C
  • Healthcare workers exposed to blood
  • Hemophiliacs (people affected by a hereditary bleeding disorder)
  • Intravenous (IV) drug use and sharing needles
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Tattoos, piercing or acupuncture

If you have hepatitis C, notify your partner(s) so he or she can also be tested and treated if necessary … also, avoid alcohol and don't share needles, syringes, razorblades or toothbrushes. Use a latex condom every time you have vaginal or anal sex, and use a condom or dental dam if you have oral sex.

What are some ways that hepatitis C cannot be spread?

You cannot get hepatitis C through food, water, eating utensils, sneezing, kissing, holding hands or breastfeeding.

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Hepatitis C signs and symptoms

Hepatitis C is most often asymptomatic (no symptoms). Although the virus can be sexually transmitted, it damages the liver … so you won't see any signs on your genitals, and you won't necessarily feel any symptoms since the virus is acting internally. Within six months of exposure, however, the following symptoms may develop:

  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever and fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Joint pain
  • Dark urine or gray-colored bowel movements
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)

Symptoms of chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infection may not show up for six months, or even decades after exposure … but can include all of the same symptoms listed above, along with serious inflammation of the liver. Even when no symptoms are present, hepatitis C can be transmitted to others … that's why getting tested is so important.


Hepatitis C complications

What if hepatitis C is untreated?

Medical treatment of hepatitis C is effective for many people … and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 25% of people clear the virus without treatment. But, for most people, an undiagnosed and untreated hepatitis C infection can develop into liver disease … and in rare cases, a chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infection can also eventually result in liver cancer or cirrhosis (scarring of the liver).

Hepatitis C and HIV

People who have hepatitis C and are HIV-positive are more likely to suffer from chronic hepatitis C complications. To minimize your risk of becoming infected or spreading hepatitis C infection to others, get tested if you think you might have been exposed, and continue to use latex condoms … and avoid any other activity that could expose you to the blood of an infected person.

In general, someone who has one STD is at greater risk for infection with other STDs, including HIV. That's because STDs that cause ulcers, sores, or otherwise break the skin or mucous membranes make carriers more susceptible to infection. Also, someone with one or more STDs may have a weakened immune system that makes them more vulnerable to other diseases.

Hepatitis C and pregnancy

There's a low risk that pregnant women with hepatitis C may transmit the virus to their babies … if you're pregnant and concerned about hepatitis C, be sure to consult your regular doctor.


Hepatitis C Testing

How do I get tested for hepatitis C?

We make getting tested for hepatitis C simple. We offer the Hepatitis C Surface Antibody (Anti-HCV) blood test, also known as the HCV Ab Immunoassay. The test provides early detection of acute or chronic hepatitis C infections, typically within 6-8 weeks of exposure and sometimes sooner. Best of all, the test is easy and safe (no undressing or swabbing required!) … and it's a highly accurate and reliable test that's also used to screen blood donors for hepatitis C.

Note: According to the Viral Hepatitis Action Coalition, 75% of people with hepatitis C were born between 1945-1965. If you were born during this 20-year span and you haven't been tested for the virus, it's highly recommended that you do so.

What hepatitis C Test results mean

A positive hepatitis C Test result means that you may have an active hepatitis C infection … or, it's possible that you had an infection in the past, and that your body fought off the infection, which happens in up to 25% of cases.

A negative hepatitis C Test result means that the virus was not detected in your blood. But because hepatitis C may not yet be detectable, if you get tested too soon after possible exposure to hepatitis C infection, you'll want to get tested again three months after exposure to confirm that you're negative … repeat testing is critical to ensure the most accurate diagnosis.

If you test positive, we're here to help. You'll have the opportunity to consult with a doctor on the phone right away. We'll answer your questions, refer you to a specialist and help you determine the next steps based on your specific circumstances.

Note: As with HIV and hepatitis B, if you test positive for hepatitis C, you should not donate blood.

Understanding false-positive or false-negative test results

As with most medical tests, there's a slight chance (1-4%) that a positive test result indicates an infection when there isn't one (false-positive); or a test comes back negative, despite the presence of infection (false-negative). For example, a false-negative test result can happen if an infected person tests too early for an infection to be detected … that means it's possible to get a negative test result but still have an STD.

If you're concerned about the reliability of your test results for any reason (e.g., timing, or your sexual history, or your partner's sexual history), we recommend that you get re-tested three months after possible exposure to the virus to confirm your results … and to minimize the risk of being a carrier and potentially developing more serious symptoms down the road.

Learn more about "testing windows" — the recommended amount of time between potential exposure to an STD infection, and when screening is expected to identify the infection (or re-infection); for example, if you had unprotected sex last night and became infected with hepatitis C, the virus wouldn't necessarily show up right away … it can take up to three months to test positive.


Hepatitis C treatment

Is there a cure or treatment for hepatitis C?

Once you've been tested and diagnosed with hepatitis C, it can't be cured … but, in some cases, it clears the body without treatment. For most people, however, treatment by a liver or infectious disease specialist is recommended to manage the virus and avoid developing complications. If you have hepatitis C, we further recommend that you get vaccinated for hepatitis A and hepatitis B as precautionary measures (there is no vaccine for hepatitis C) … pneumonia, influenza and other routine vaccines are also recommended (including diptheria and tetanus).

Acute hepatitis C

If you have an acute (short-term) hepatitis C infection, depending on the severity of your symptoms, no treatment may be necessary. Be sure to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, eat a healthy diet, and avoid alcohol, sedatives and painkillers. You'll also need to be re-tested to confirm that the virus is inactive in your body … and you'll want to see a doctor for managing the infection and follow-up testing.

Chronic hepatitis C

If you've been diagnosed with chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infection, antiviral medications can slow the effects of liver damage … and if your liver is seriously damaged, getting a liver transplant may be an option.

Pregnancy and treatment

There's a low risk that pregnant women with hepatitis C may transmit the virus to their babies … but if you're pregnant and concerned about hepatitis C, consult your regular doctor about the risks involved, and to identify a treatment that's best for you and your baby.

Concerned about Hepatitis C?

Find out if you should get tested today; peace of mind has never been easier. Questions about our process? See how our STD testing works.