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.
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.
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.
The hepatitis C virus recombinant immunoblot assay (RIBA) and hepatitis C virus ribonucleic acid (RNA) testing are used to confirm the diagnosis.
Combination antiviral therapy with interferon and ribavirin has been the mainstay of hepatitis C treatment.