Hepatitis C 

Introduction 

Hepatitis C

Professor Howard Thomas explains what hepatitis C is, how you can become infected and why it's important to detect it early.

Media last reviewed: 20/08/2013

Next review due: 20/08/2015

The liver

Your liver is your body’s "factory". It carries out hundreds of jobs that are vital for life, including:

  • storing glycogen (carbohydrate that produces short-term energy)
  • making bile, which helps digest fats
  • making substances that clot the blood
  • processing and removing any alcohol, toxins and drugs

You only have one liver, but it is very tough. It keeps going when it is badly damaged, and it can continue repairing itself until it becomes severely damaged.

Hepatitis C is a virus that can infect and damage the liver. You can become infected with hepatitis C if you come into contact with the blood of an infected person.

In most cases, hepatitis C causes no noticeable symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged.

When symptoms do occur, they are often vague and can be easily mistaken for another condition. Symptoms include:

Because of this, many people remain unaware that they are infected by hepatitis C.

Read more about the symptoms of hepatitis C.

How do you get hepatitis C?

The hepatitis C virus is particularly concentrated in the blood of an infected person, so it's usually transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. Some examples of ways blood can be transferred include:

  • sharing razors or toothbrushes
  • sharing unsterilised needles - for example, while injecting drugs

It's estimated that up to 49% of people who inject drugs in England are thought to have hepatitis C. It's not only regular drug users who are at risk. People who have only injected drugs once in their life have been known to develop hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C can be transmitted through sex, although this is very rare. The risk may be higher among men who have sex with men. Wearing a condom with a new partner is advised.

Hepatitis C is more common in certain parts of the world, including North Africa, the Middle East and Central and East Asia, and this is thought to result from the use of shared needles for vaccination or medical treatment.

Read more about the causes and risk factors of hepatitis C.

Getting tested

Because hepatitis C often causes no obvious symptoms, testing is usually recommended if you are in a high-risk group, such as being a current or former injecting drug user.

Your GP, sexual health clinic, GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinic or drug treatment service all offer testing for hepatitis C. It can be done using a blood test.

The sooner treatment begins after exposure to the hepatitis C virus, the more likely it is to succeed.

Read more about who should be tested for hepatitis C.

Treating hepatitis C

Hepatitis C can be treated with antiviral medicines designed to stop the virus from multiplying inside the body and prevent liver damage.

Two widely used antiviral medications are interferon and ribavirin.

There are six different strains of hepatitis C, known as genotypes, and some genotypes respond better to treatment than others.

The most common genotypes of hepatitis C in England are genotypes 1 and 3.

With treatment, around half of people with genotype 1 will be cured, and around eight out of 10 people with genotype 3 will be cured.

Two new medications, released in 2011, called boceprevir and telaprevir, have been found to be effective in some people who do not respond to conventional antiviral treatments.

Read more about treating hepatitis C.

Who is affected?

There were 10,873 reported new cases of hepatitis C in England during 2012, but the true figure is probably much higher.

It is estimated that around 215,000 people in the UK have chronic hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C is more common in men than women as men are more likely to inject drugs.

Prevention

Unlike other forms of hepatitis, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Two ways to reduce your risk of catching hepatitis C are:

  • Never share any drug-injecting equipment with other people (not just needles, but also syringes, spoons and filters).
  • Use a condom during sex with new partners.

Read more about preventing hepatitis C.

Stages of infection

The first six months of a hepatitis C infection are known as acute hepatitis C. Around one in four people will fight off the infection and will be free of the virus.

In the remaining three out of four people, the virus will stay in their body for many years. This is known as chronic hepatitis C.

Depending on other risk factors, such as alcohol use, between 10% and 40% of people with untreated chronic hepatitis C will go on to develop scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), often more than twenty years after first catching the virus.

Around one in five people with cirrhosis will then develop liver failure, and one in 20 will develop liver cancer, both of which can be fatal.

Read more about the complications of hepatitis C.




Page last reviewed: 09/10/2013

Next review due: 09/10/2015

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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Hep C Warrior said on 04 May 2014

BTW, the info on this page is amazingly short sighted and not realistic!

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Hep C Warrior said on 04 May 2014

I am currently in triple treatment for hep c and I am 44. I have seen a lot of medical workers, in many arenas, in that time. I am proud of the NHS (what's left!) and am still in shock that for the first time, it was necessary to complain about something, anything. I have been so lucky with my G.P. and the Upper G.I. team at the Royal United Hospital but was very ill yesterday (just starting to feel a tad better) and spent hours talking to the people at 111 and anyone they wanted to pass the buck to. Just say you dunno! I can handle it. The lack of knowledge was terrifying but my soul is healing. Not allowed to get stressed. That's not always easy, this treatment and it' rising. Please train your workers a tad!

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jjohnn said on 05 June 2012

Six months later and still nothing's changed about this article. The previous comment by monkey600 is correct.

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monkey600 said on 31 December 2011

This article is seriously out of date regarding treatments available. Why has it not been reviewed by the date set above?
It seems to me that the NHS want to keep secret the new drug treatments available and their much improved success rates as they cost a lot of money, and yet again the Hep C sufferers just roll over and take it.
Your symptoms page is also very incomplete.

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Blood tests

Blood tests are carried out for a variety of reasons and can provide a wide range of information

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