Hepatitis C (HCV) is the leading cause of liver failure and end-stage liver disease in the United States and is a major cause for liver transplants. Baby boomers, in particular, are at high-risk for HCV and should get tested even if they have no symptoms of the disease. Here are some facts to know about hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver.
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.
Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic.
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 leads 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.
3.2 million people in the U.S. have chronic hepatitis C.
Most people don’t know they are infected because they do not look or feel sick. About 75 to 85 percent of people who become infected with the hepatitis C virus will develop a chronic infection.
Most people get infected through needle-sharing.
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.
The risk of hepatitis C spreading through sexual contact is low.
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, are infected with HIV or engage in rough sex.
There are many ways that hepatitis C is not spread.
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.
The hepatitis C virus can survive outside the body at room temperature for at least 16 hours. But it can’t survive for longer than four days.
Hepatitis C is rarely passed from a pregnant woman to her baby.
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.