Hepatitis C is a preventable liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
Hepatitis C was discovered in the 1980s when it became apparent that there was a new virus causing liver damage. It was known as non-A non-B hepatitis until it was properly identified in 1989.
Most people who have HCV feel well, have no symptoms, and do not know they have the disease. Others may experience a brief illness with symptoms usually appearing 6 to 12 weeks after being infected with the virus. The only way to know for sure that you have hepatitis C is to have a blood test.
Use a condom if you think there might be rough sex or when HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) might be present.
If you have been sexually assaulted, see a health care provider for testing and other supports.
It is also possible for hepatitis C to be caught:
- from sharing household articles that could have blood on them like razors, toothbrushes or nail clippers
- by accidentally being poked with a used needle, or
- from medical or dental procedures if the equipment is reused and has not been properly sterilized
Although it doesn’t happen very often, it is possible for hepatitis C to spread from a mother to her baby at birth.
Hepatitis C can be categorised into two stages, firstly an acute infection (following initial infection) and secondly a chronic infection. The acute stage refers to the first 6 months of infection and does not necessarily mean there are any noticeable symptoms. Since symptoms are commonly absent many people are unaware that they have hepatitis C until some time after they have been infected.
Symptoms of acute hepatitis C infection can include:
- Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes)
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea (sick to your stomach)
People may develop a chronic (long-term) infection and expereince long-term health concerns that are difficult to diagnose (for example, tiredness, lack of energy, or digestive problems). It is important to recognise that hepatitis C can cause a variety of symptoms that are highly variable – people with chronic heaptitis C can feel fine and have no symptoms, however others will suffer from quite severe symptoms.
The virus is usually spread by direct contact with the blood of an infected person. This happens most often by:
- Sharing drug snorting or injection equipment such as needles and syringes
- Accidentally poking yourself with a used needle and syringe
- Having received a transfusion of blood or blood product in a country where the blood supply is not tested for hepatitis C.
- In Canada, this applies only to transfusions before 1990. As of June 1990 all blood and blood products have been screened for the hepatitis C virus.
Other situations where blood-to-blood contact from a hepatitis C infected person can occur but the risk is much lower include:
- Sharing toothbrushes, dental floss, razors, nail files, or other items which could have tiny amounts of blood on them
- Skin-piercing procedures such as tattoos, body-piercing, acupuncture or electrolysis if the equipment is not sterile
- Sexual intercourse
- An infected mother passing it to her newborn infant. Whether breast milk can transmit the virus is not yet known.
How is Hepatitis C NOT spread?
Hepatitis C is NOT known to be spread by:
- Coughing or sneezing
- Friendly contact such as hugging and kissing
- Using the same dishes or cutlery
- Swimming in a treated pool when you have cuts, scrapes or are menstruating
- Being bitten or stung by an insect which then bites or stings someone else
- Skin contact by others with your body fluids (such as saliva, urine, faeces or vomit)
Chronic infection with the hepatitis C virus is associated with a wide spectrum of liver disease ranging from minor inflammation to life threatening, decompensated cirrhosis.
The process of getting a diagnosis involves 2 blood tests.
- A hepatitis C antibody test is the first test. This is to determine whether you have ever been exposed to the hepatitis C virus by testing for the presence of antibodies to the virus generated by your immune system.
- If an antibody test is positive the next test is to check if the virus is still present by having a ‘qualitative’ PCR test (polymerase chain reaction). The PCR test determines whether you are currently infected by detecting active hepatitis C virus replication in the blood.
People who test positive for hepatitis C should be referred to a specialist for further testing and assessment, and to discuss treatment options.
Hepatitis C treatments have changed and are very different from old therapies that included interferon. Current treatments take about 8 to 12 weeks and involve only oral treatments, such as pills or tablets instead of injections, and have much fewer and less severe side effects than old therapies. These new treatments are highly effective, curing more than 95% of people who are treated, and are now fully funded under PharmaCare.
, a free helpline, was launched by Pacific Hepatitis C Network. Callers can talk one-to-one with a peer navigator, usually someone who’s had hepatitis C themselves, about hepatitis C.
You can call Help4HepBC anytime at
1-888-411-7578. You can also visit their website at
The Pacific Hepatitis C Network can connect you with local support groups in your area.
If you think that you may have hepatitis C you can also contact your local health unit or your family doctor for further information.
Currently there is no vaccine available for hepatitis C.
For people who are infected with hepatitis C, it is recommended that you get vaccinated against hepatitis A, hepatitis B,pneumococcal disease. These are given free to people infected with hepatitis C. You can get these shots from your local health unit or family doctor.
NOTE: Pregnant women should discuss vaccination with their public health nurse or family doctor before getting vaccinated