Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection. It can inflame and damage the liver.

Hepatitis C is usually transmitted through contact with infected blood. It can be spread through:

  • Shared needles during intravenous drug use

  • Shared devices used to snort cocaine

  • Unprotected sexual intercourse (this is uncommon)

  • Accidental stick with a contaminated needle

  • Blood transfusions (rare because of improved screening techniques since 1992)

  • Renal dialysis

  • Childbirth, from mother to child during delivery

  • Contaminated tattoo or body piercing equipment

The hepatitis C virus can cause short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) hepatitis C. Most people with acute hepatitis C eventually develop chronic hepatitis C.

Most people with hepatitis C don't know that they are infected. That's because hepatitis C usually does not cause symptoms.

After having this silent infection for 20 to 30 years, about one-third of people develop cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is a serious liver disease that can lead to death. A smaller group of people with chronic hepatitis C develop liver cancer.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend screening for hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in people at higher than average risk. Also there is a high prevalence of infection in adults born between 1945 and 1965. If you were born during that time, you should get a one-time simple blood test to make sure you are not infected.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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