What it is

Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus, or HCV. It is a blood-borne infection, which means the virus must be carried in by blood to enter your body. A hepatitis C infection can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. Chronic HCV infection happens when the hepatitis C virus stays in a person's body and develops in about 85% of HCV-infected people. Some chronically infected people can even develop cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.

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The symptoms

Most people don't show symptoms when they first become infected. Signs of infection may not even appear until 10 to 20 years later.

Often, people who have developed chronic hepatitis C will not show symptoms until their liver disease becomes serious.

Signs and symptoms of a hepatitis C may include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced appetite
  • Sore muscles and joints
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Jaundice (a yellow colour in the skin or eyes)

About 15-45% of infected people are clear of the hepatitis C virus within 6 months of infection, without any treatment. About 85% develop a chronic infection. However, it can take a long time to develop a chronic infection, and you can pass on the virus without knowing it.

What it can do to you

Hepatitis C is very serious and contagious liver disease that can be mild and last a few weeks or become a serious and lifelong illness that attacks the liver. This can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.

If you are pregnant and infected with hepatitis C virus, you may pass the virus to your baby. About 4 out of every 100 infants born to mothers with hepatitis C become infected with the virus. Breastfeeding is not considered a risk. However, if your nipples are cracked and bleeding, you should stop breastfeeding until they are healed.

How you prevent it

Practicing safer sex and using condoms will lower the risk of getting hepatitis C or other STIs. Avoid blood-to-blood contact during sexual activity.

Remember:

  • If you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant, you need to be tested.
  • You are at risk of getting hepatitis C or HIV when you use injection drugs and share equipment with an infected person.

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If you find out that you have hepatitis C, your partner(s) need to be told that they could have an infection - even if there aren't any symptoms. If you have concerns about telling your partner(s), contact a public health nurse. The public health nurse can suggest ways to handle the situation or they will contact your partner(s) for you. Of course, your name will be kept confidential.

Hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood contact with an infected person. Although the risk of getting Hep C through sex is low, it is possible to get it during unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex with an infected person - where there is blood-to-blood contact. The risk increases for those who have multiple sex partners, have a sexually transmitted infection, engage in rough sex, or are infected with HIV.

The highest risk comes from sharing equipment for drug use, such as needles, syringes and other drug equipment, including crack-smoking equipment and other paraphernalia. Hepatitis C can also be transmitted in other ways through contaminated tattooing and piercing equipment, needlestick injuries in health care settings and blood transfusions prior to the testing of the blood system for hepatitis C.

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If you think you have it

If you think you have hepatitis C, visit your health care provider or sexual health clinic to get tested immediately.

Get tested

Your health care provider or public health nurse can order a special hepatitis C blood test for you.

Many women assume STI tests are also performed during their regular Pap exam, but this is not the case. Be sure to ask your health care provider to test you for STIs - asking is the only way to know whether you are receiving the right tests.

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Get treated

There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. However, effective treatment is available. Talk to your health care provider or public health nurse to see which treatment is right for you.

If you decide to talk to your partner(s) yourself, learn how to talk comfortably about it.