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Hepatitis C: Basics, prevention and symptoms

Hepatitis C is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus and can cause inflammation and scarring of liver tissue.

Around 10,800 new cases of hepatitis C are diagnosed in England each year, but many people who carry the virus do not know they have it.

There are at least six different subtypes of the hepatitis C virus. While no one type is more dangerous than another, they do respond differently to treatment.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

When symptoms are present in the initial, or acute stage, they may include:

After six months, hepatitis C is said to be in the chronic stage.

The virus is still active. The infected person may not experience any symptoms, but can still pass on the virus.

Symptoms may include:

  • More extreme tiredness
  • Depression
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Mood swings
  • Digestive problems
  • Joint and muscle aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Pain in the liver area
  • Stomach pains
  • Itching 

Longer term, over about 20 to 30 years, around one in five people with hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis or liver scarring. When the liver is still able to function this type of cirrhosis is called ‘compensated cirrhosis’.

For some people, the liver may fail or stop working. This stage is called ‘decompensated cirrhosis’ at which point a liver transplant may be the only treatment option.

How is hepatitis C transmitted?

Hepatitis C is transmitted when the blood or body fluids from an infected person enters the body of a person who is not immune to the disease.

It can be spread by:

  • Sharing drugs and needles
  • Being pricked by infected needles (e.g. health care workers)
  • During birth from a mother to a child
  • Having sex with an infected person without a  condom 

Hepatitis C is not spread through food, water or by casual contact.

Who is at risk of infection?

People at higher risk of infection include:

  • Injecting drug users
  • Kidney  dialysis patients
  • Recipients of blood or organ transplants in the UK before September 1991 or people who have had blood transfusions and treatment abroad
  • People with undiagnosed liver problems
  • Infants born to infected mothers
  • Those who have tattoos or body piercing

How is hepatitis C diagnosed?

Two blood tests are used to determine if you are infected with the hepatitis C virus: the antibody test, and the PCR test.

The antibody test determines whether you have ever been exposed to the hepatitis C virus by checking for antibodies which fight or control to the virus.

The PCR test checks if the virus is still present and reproducing inside your body.

When the condition is diagnosed, the doctor making the diagnosis must inform the local authority as hepatitis C is what's called a 'notifiable condition'. You do not have to tell your employer that you have hepatitis C unless you are a healthcare worker.

Other tests may follow, including liver function tests.

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