Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis C virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness.

The hepatitis C virus is usually spread when blood from an infected person enters the body of a susceptible person. It is among the most common viruses that infect the liver.

Transmission

The hepatitis C virus is most commonly transmitted through exposure to infectious blood. This can occur through:

  • receipt of contaminated blood transfusions, blood products and organ transplants;
  • injections given with contaminated syringes and needle-stick injuries in health-care settings;
  • injection drug use;
  • being born to a hepatitis C-infected mother.

Hepatitis C may be transmitted through sex with an infected person or sharing personal items contaminated with infectious blood, but these are less common.

Hepatitis C is not spread through breast milk, food or water or by casual contact such as hugging, kissing and sharing food or drinks with an infected person.

Symptoms

The incubation period for hepatitis C is 2 weeks to 6 months. Following initial infection, approximately 80% of people do not exhibit any symptoms. Those who are acutely symptomatic may exhibit fever, fatigue, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, grey-coloured faeces, joint pain and jaundice (yellowing of skin and the whites of the eyes).

About 75–85 % of newly infected persons develop chronic infection and 60–70% of chronically infected people develop chronic liver disease; 5–20% develop cirrhosis and 1–5% die from cirrhosis or liver cancer. In 25% of liver cancer patients, the underlying cause is hepatitis C.

Diagnosis

The hepatitis C virus recombinant immunoblot assay (RIBA) and hepatitis C virus ribonucleic acid (RNA) testing are used to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

Combination antiviral therapy with interferon and ribavirin has been the mainstay of hepatitis C treatment.