What is hepatitis C (hep C)?

Picture of Hepatitis
Hepatitis C virus destroys the liver.

Hepatitis (hep C) is a form of viral hepatitis. Hepatitis C causes acute and chronic liver disease. Hepatitis C is transmitted when the virus in infected blood from one person infects another person. Hepatitis C disease is caused by a virus termed HCV (a single strand RNA virus) that infects liver cells. Hepatitis C was referred to in older scientific publications as non-A or non-B hepatitis.

Hepatitis C Symptoms

Most people with hepatitis C or hep C have no symptoms when they contract the infection. Those that do have symptoms of hep C infection may experience

  • abdominal pain.
  • fatigue,
  • fever,
  • joint pains,
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea,
  • poor appetite, and
  • vomiting.

Is hepatitis C contagious?

Hepatitis C is contagious. It is mainly transmitted via blood-to-blood transfer. This transmission can occur by

  • sharing needles,
  • acupuncture,
  • tattoo needles,
  • surgical or diagnostic instruments,
  • sexual contact, and
  • organ transplants.

Casual contact (including exposure to saliva and skin to skin such as with a handshake or) rarely, if ever, can transmit hepatitis C virus.

How long before I know I'm infected and have hepatitis C?

The incubation period (time from exposure to the virus to symptom development) for hep C is variable. The time period may vary from about 2 weeks to 6 months with 6-10 weeks being the average time span. However, about 80% of those infected may not develop acute symptoms.

Symptoms of hepatitis C develop slowly and include

About 70% to 90% of infected people do not clear the virus and become chronic carriers. Tests for diagnosing hepatitis C virus include detecting antibodies to the virus and a PCR test that detects virus antigens.


Hepatitis C (Hep C) Symptoms and Treatment See Slideshow

How is hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C is spread person-to-person usually by direct contact with another person's blood who is infected with hepatitis C virus. Individuals that share needles are at a high risk to become infected. Surgical and other instruments that are not properly decontaminated can also spread hepatitis C to others. Moreover, some patients that receive organ transplants from individuals that have the virus, but no symptoms, can transmit the disease to the organ transplant recipient.

How will I know when I am no longer contagious and cured of hepatitis C?

Treatments are usually long-term (for example, 12-24 weeks ) and a person is not considered "cured" until 6 months have passed with no virus detected in their blood samples. Treatments are varied according to the individual's disease.

When should I seek medical care for hepatitis C?

If a person develops one or more of the following symptoms, they should seek medical care:

Let your doctor know if you shared needles with someone or you have had contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with hepatitis C.

If a person is known to have hepatitis C and develops severe nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and/or mental status changes (confusion or unresponsiveness, for example), they should be evaluated in an emergency department immediately.

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Medically Reviewed on 9/3/2019

Chopra, S, MD. "Patient education: Hepatitis C (Beyond the Basics)" UpToDate. Updated: Sep 18, 2017.

World Health Organization (WHO). Hepatitis C.