It is caused by the hepatitis C virus, and is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. It can range in severity from mild – lasting a few weeks – to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver.
Acute hepatitis C occurs within the first six months after someone is exposed to the virus. It is a short-term illness, but, for most people, acute infections lead to chronic infections. Chronic infections occur when the virus remains in a person’s body, and can lead to serious liver problems, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Most people don’t know they are infected, because they do not look or feel sick. In addition, about 75 to 85 percent of people who become infected with the Hepatitis C virus will develop a chronic infection.
Sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs is the primary way people become affected today. But, before 1992, when widespread blood supply screening began, hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
It is possible to spread hepatitis C through sexual contact, but the risk is believed to be low. Chances increase for those who have multiple partners, have a sexually transmitted disease, or are infected with HIV.
These include sharing utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, coughing or sneezing. It’s also not spread through food or water.
The virus can survive outside the body at room temperature for at least 16 hours. But it can’t survive for longer than four days.
About four out of every 100 babies born to mothers with hepatitis C become infected. The risk increases if the mother has both hepatitis C and HIV.