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Hepatitis C Basics

CDC offers information on hepatitis C for both healthcare providers and the public, some of which is excerpted here. For more information, click the provided CDC links.

Hepatitis C FAQs for Health Professionals

Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public – CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis provides answers to questions about hepatitis C. We list some of the most common questions and answers. Find more questions and answers on the CDC Web site.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the hepatitis C virus, which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic.”

Acute hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.

Chronic hepatitis C virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the hepatitis C virus remains in a person’s body. Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.

How is hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with the hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

People can become infected with the hepatitis C virus during activities such as:

  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs.
  • Needlestick injuries in health care settings.
  • Being born to a mother who has hepatitis C.

Less commonly, a person can also get hepatitis C virus infection through:

  • Sharing personal care items that may have come in contact with another person’s blood, such as razors or toothbrushes.
  • Having sexual contact with a person infected with the hepatitis C virus.

Can hepatitis C be spread through sexual contact?

Yes, but the risk of transmission from sexual contact is believed to be low. The risk increases for those who have multiple sex partners, have a sexually transmitted disease, engage in rough sex, or are infected with HIV. More research is needed to better understand how and when hepatitis C can be spread through sexual contact.

Who is at risk for hepatitis C?

Some people are at increased risk for hepatitis C, including:

  • Current injection drug users (currently the most common way hepatitis C virus is spread in the United States).
  • Past injection drug users, including those who injected only one time or many years ago.
  • Recipients of donated blood, blood products, and organs (once a common means of transmission but now rare in the United States since blood screening became available in 1992).
  • People who received a blood product made before 1987 for clotting problems.
  • Hemodialysis patients or persons who spent many years on dialysis for kidney failure.
  • People who received body piercing or tattoos done with non-sterile instruments.
  • People with known exposures to the hepatitis C virus, such as:
    • Health care workers injured by needlesticks.
    • Recipients of blood or organs from a donor who tested positive for the hepatitis C virus.
  • HIV-infected persons.
  • Children born to mothers infected with the hepatitis C virus.

Less common risks include:

  • Having sexual contact with a person who is infected with the hepatitis C virus.
  • Sharing personal care items, such as razors or toothbrushes, that may have come in contact with the blood of an infected person.

What are the symptoms of acute hepatitis C?

Approximately 70–80 percent of people with acute hepatitis C do not have any symptoms. Some people, however, can have mild to severe symptoms soon after being infected, including:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice (yellow color in the skin or eyes)

Can a person spread hepatitis C without having symptoms?

Yes, even if a person with hepatitis C has no symptoms, he or she can still spread the virus to others.

Who should get tested for hepatitis C?

Talk to your doctor about being tested for hepatitis C if any of the following are true:

  • You were born from 1945 through 1965.
  • You are a current or former injection drug user, even if you injected only one time or many years ago.
  • You were treated for a blood clotting problem before 1987.
  • You received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992.
  • You are on long-term hemodialysis treatment.
  • You have abnormal liver tests or liver disease.
  • You work in health care or public safety and were exposed to blood through a needlestick or other sharp object injury.
  • You are infected with HIV.

If you are pregnant, should you be tested for hepatitis C?

No, getting tested for hepatitis C is not part of routine prenatal care. However, if a pregnant woman has risk factors for hepatitis C virus infection, then she should speak with her doctor about getting tested.

Can acute hepatitis C be treated?

Yes, acute hepatitis C can be treated. Acute infection can clear on its own without treatment in approximately 25 percent of people. If acute hepatitis C is diagnosed, then treatment does reduce the risk that acute hepatitis C will become a chronic infection. Acute hepatitis C is treated with the same medications used to treat chronic hepatitis C. However, the optimal treatment and when it should be started remains uncertain.

Can chronic hepatitis C be treated?

Yes. There are several medications available to treat chronic hepatitis C, including new treatments that appear to be more effective and have fewer side effects than previous options. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a complete list of approved treatments for hepatitis C.

Is there a vaccine that can prevent hepatitis C?

Not yet. Vaccines are available only for hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Research into the development of a vaccine is under way.

What is HIV and hepatitis C virus coinfection?

HIV and hepatitis C virus coinfection refers to being infected with both HIV and the hepatitis C virus. Coinfection is more common in persons who inject drugs. In fact, 50–90 percent of HIV-infected persons who use injection drugs are also infected with the hepatitis C virus. To learn more about coinfection, visit http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/resources/factsheets/hepatitis.htm.

Last Updated: 
9/1/15