Hepatitis C

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

Medically reviewed

Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver that's spread through contact with blood. It can be serious if it's not treated, but there's effective antiviral therapy available.

What is the hepatitis C virus?

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C is an infectious disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus. Some infections last less than 6 months – this is called acute hepatitis. Infections that last longer are called chronic hepatitis.

How is hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C virus is spread through contact with infected blood, for example:

  • Sharing drug injection needles with an infected person

  • Sharing personal things like needles, razors, toothbrushes or nail scissors

  • Having sex, especially anal sex, with an infected person

  • Childbirth, if the mother is infected

  • Receiving a blood transfusion or an organ, tissue or cell transplant before 1991

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

Some people with acute hepatitis C have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. This means some people won't know they have it. Around 25% of people have symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue

  • Yellow-orange discolouration of the skin and eyes, commonly called jaundice

  • Loss of appetite

  • Pain in the liver, the upper right part of the stomach

  • Fever

  • Body aches.

Some people will recover from hepatitis C within 6 months. Most people will develop chronic hepatitis C, which can be serious if left untreated. Over time, chronic hepatitis C can lead to other problems like liver damage, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), or liver cancer.

There’s a higher risk of these complications in people who drink a high amount of alcohol, have HIV, are overweight, older, or have certain genetic factors.

Testing for hepatitis C

A GP can diagnose hepatitis C with a blood test.

What are the risks of hepatitis C?

Having hepatitis C damages liver cells, making it harder for the liver to function properly. The liver is a vital organ with over 500 different functions. Its main jobs include:

  • Storing and releasing nutrients from the food you eat

  • Breaking down toxins from internal and external sources, such as alcohol

  • Making most of your blood proteins

  • Making bile that's essential for digesting fats

How is hepatitis C treated?

If you’ve been diagnosed with hepatitis C, you'll be referred to a liver specialist called a hepatologist. A GP might arrange some blood tests whilst waiting for the specialist opinion. 

To stop the infection from spreading further, your local Health Protection Team will arrange testing for people you've been in close contact with. This is completely confidential and you won't be identified.

In 15-30% of people, the virus is successfully cleared by the immune system within 6 months and no treatment is needed. Most people will develop chronic hepatitis and need treatment to help them clear the virus.

Antiviral therapy helps clear the virus and protects your liver from damage. It's very effective – 90% of patients with hepatitis are cured if they take the medicine as instructed.

It's important to reduce your risk of exposure to the virus again, as you won't be immune to getting infected again.

You may be monitored over the long-term to check for any liver damage even after the infection is gone.

Is there a vaccine against hepatitis C?

There's no vaccine against hepatitis C, but antiviral treatment is very effective and can cure the disease.

There are ways you can lower your risk of catching the virus:

  • Use condoms with any new partners or during anal sex

  • Never share needles or other drug-using equipment

  • Never share razors, toothbrushes or nail scissors

  • Use single-use or sterile equipment for tattoos and piercings

Blood products used in healthcare settings in the UK have been screened for hepatitis C since 1991.

When should I talk to a doctor?

Most people don't develop any symptoms in the first stages of hepatitis C, but if you develop any of the following, speak to a doctor.

  • A high temperature

  • Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)

  • Very dark pee and discoloured poo

  • Pain in the upper right part of the abdomen

  • Itchy skin

  • Trouble sleeping, mood swings or anxiety

  • Confusion or drowsiness

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson

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