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 or, less commonly, body fluids of an infected person. In most cases, hepatitis C causes no noticeable symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged. This can occur many years after the initial infection.
When symptoms do occur, they are often vague, for example flu-like symptoms, tiredness or depression. Because of this, many people remain unaware that they are infected by hepatitis C.
How do you get hepatitis C?
The hepatitis C virus is present in the blood and, to a much lesser extent, the saliva and semen or vaginal fluid of an infected person. It is particularly concentrated in the blood, so it is usually transmitted through blood-to-blood contact.
Almost 90% of new infections in the UK occur in people who are injecting illegal drugs.
It is 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. Less commonly, people can get hepatitis C through sex or being exposed to infected body fluids at work.
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 or the Nordhaven Clinic can test you for Hepatitis C using a simple blood test.
The sooner treatment begins after exposure to the hepatitis C virus, the more likely it is to succeed.
Treating Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C can be treated with antiviral medicines that are designed to stop the virus from multiplying inside the body and prevent liver damage.
The different strains of hepatitis C are known as genotypes, and some genotypes respond better to treatment than others.
The most common genotypes of hepatitis C in the UK are genotypes 1, 2 and 3. With treatment, around half of people with genotype 1 will be cured, and around 8 out of 10 people with genotypes 2 and 3 will be cured.
Who is affected?
There were 7,834 reported new cases of hepatitis C in England during 2010, but the true figure is probably much higher.
It is estimated that around 255,000 people in England have hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is more common in men than women as men are more likely to inject drugs.
Who should be tested?
- ex-drug users
- current drug users
- people who received blood transfusions before September 1991
- recipients of organ or tissue transplants before 1992, or in countries where hepatitis C is common
- babies and children whose mothers have hepatitis C
- anyone accidentally exposed to the virus (needlestick or splash injury), such as health workers
- people who have received a tattoo or piercing where equipment may not have been properly sterilised
- sexual partners of people with hepatitis C
If you continue to engage in high-risk activities, such as injecting drugs frequently, then regular testing may be recommended. Your GP will be able to advise you.
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). See our Needle Exchange page for more information.
- Use a condom during sex.
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 (known as cirrhosis).
Around one in five people with cirrhosis will then develop liver failure, and 1 in 20 will develop liver cancer, both of which can be fatal.
If you think you are at risk of Hepatitis C infection, even if that risk was many years ago, please make an appointment for a test by calling Nordhaven Clinic on 01856 888 917.