What Is Hepatitis C?

Steven Mott by Steven Mott | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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You might have heard of hepatitis, but what is hepatitis C (sometimes called “hep C”)?

What is hepatitis C? Some quick facts

Hepatitis C is a virus that affects the liver. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 2.7 to 3.9 million people in the United States have hepatitis C.

What are the different types of hepatitis C?

A hepatitis C infection can be “acute” or “chronic.” While hepatitis C can start off as an acute infection that you recover from after a short time, it can turn into a chronic hepatitis C infection that can last for the rest of your life. Most people who get hepatitis C start off with an acute infection that turns into a chronic (long-term) illness, the CDC reports.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

One of the dangerous things about hepatitis C is that it can come on with no symptoms, or mild ones, according to the CDC. If you have symptoms of hepatitis C, it’s generally when you first get the disease. These signs might include feeling tired, having a fever, abdominal pain or nausea, dark-colored urine, clay-colored stool, pain in your joints, or other symptoms.

You will probably not have any symptoms of hepatitis C when it’s chronic, reports the CDC. But that doesn’t mean the disease isn’t harming you. You can get liver cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, or other liver damage – often without noticing anything wrong until you’re very sick.

Symptoms can develop anywhere between four weeks and six months after infection, says the CDC. Hepatitis C is diagnosed with blood tests.

Around 25% of all people infected with acute hepatitis C will recover on their own with no treatment and no long-term effects, according to the CDC. People who are diagnosed with acute hepatitis C early and receive treatment may reduce their risk of developing chronic hepatitis C, which can be much more serious and carry life-threatening complications.

How do you get hepatitis C?

The hepatitis C virus is transmitted through the blood of an infected person. The hepatitis C virus can survive outside the body for up to three weeks on household and environmental surfaces, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

If you’re wondering what causes hepatitis C, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that this blood-to-blood contact with an infected person can happen in various ways, such as:

  • Sharing needles or other tools to inject drugs
  • Being infected by a contaminated needle-stick injury in a health-care environment
  • Being born from an infected mother

Who’s at risk for getting hepatitis C?

According to National Institutes of Health (NIH), people at high risk of getting hepatitis C infection include people such as those who:

  • Had an organ transplant or blood transfusion prior to 1992
  • Have HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, often called HIV/AIDS)
  • Inject street illegal drugs, or used to do so
  • Received blood because of hemophilia before 1987
  • Are or were on kidney dialysis
  • Had a piercing or tattoo using non-sterile equipment

How is hepatitis C treated?

Hepatitis C can generally be treated with prescription drugs, states the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). See Does Medicare Cover Hepatitis C Treatment for more information.

When hepatitis C progresses to the chronic stage, the potential for life-threatening complications such as cirrhosis (a form of liver scarring) and liver cancer increases. One in five people infected with chronic hepatitis C will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer, according to the CDC.

Can you prevent hepatitis C?

The three most common types of hepatitis are hepatitis A, B, and C. Each type may be transmitted differently, may affect the liver differently, and generally requires a different course of treatment, says the CDC. While there are safe and effective vaccines for hepatitis A and B, there is currently no shot to protect you against hepatitis C. However, if you can avoid situations that may put you at risk as described above – such as sharing needles to inject drugs – you might not get hepatitis C. If you think you might be at risk for hepatitis C, or if you have questions, talk to your doctor.

A diagnosis of hepatitis C can lead to uncertainties when it comes to medical costs. If you have questions about your Medicare coverage and hepatitis C, I am happy to help. The Compare Plans or Find Plans buttons can show you some of the plan options you may be eligible for in your area. Click the links below to request a phone call or personalized email.

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