Health conditions

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. It can be caused by viruses such as hepatitis A, B, C, D, E and G, alcohol, some chemicals, or drugs.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne infection. It’s passed on by blood-to-blood contact, when infected blood enters another person’s bloodstream. It is sometimes called ‘hep C’.

It is a different virus to hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

You can’t catch hepatitis C from everyday social contact, such as shaking hands, kissing, or sharing a bathroom or toilet, or by donating blood.

In Australia, you are very unlikely to get hepatitis C through blood transfusion or an organ transplant.

How do you get hepatitis C?

In Australia, most hepatitis C infections result from the sharing of needles and other equipment used for injecting drugs. You can catch hepatitis C even if you only share needles or other equipment once.

Other ways that you can catch hepatitis C include:

  • A needlestick injury in a health care setting. The risk of catching hepatitis C from a needle found in a community setting, such as in the park, is very, very low.
  • Getting any body art, such as tattooing or piercing, when the equipment isn’t sterile.
  • Having unprotected sex involving blood or damage to the skin, such as anal sex or unprotected sex with a woman during her period. The risk of infection through penile-vaginal sex is very low.
  • Sharing personal items that can have traces of blood on them, such as razors, toothbrushes and dental floss.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

There is a low risk of an infected mother passing on hepatitis C to her baby either during pregnancy, or at birth. There is almost no risk from breast milk – breastfeeding is safe unless nipples are cracked or bleeding.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Many people don’t have any symptoms at first, or have a minor, flu-like illness. In some cases, your urine becomes dark, and your skin and eyes turn yellow (jaundice). Hepatitis symptoms can disappear within a few weeks but this does not always mean that the infection has also disappeared.

If you have hepatitis symptoms you should see a doctor. When the liver is ‘inflamed’ for more than 6 months, the illness is called long-term or chronic hepatitis.

Symptoms of chronic hepatitis C include:

  • mild to severe tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling unwell and vomiting
  • soreness under the ribs
  • fever
  • joint pain.

The only way to find out if you have hepatitis C is by a blood test organised by your doctor. The hepatitis C virus (HCV) antibody test shows if you have ever been infected. It can take 3 to 6 months from the time of infection before this test becomes positive. So if your test result is negative, you will need a repeat test in 3 to 6 months time.

The test can’t show if you have chronic hepatitis C. So if your antibody test result is positive, you will need another test to tell if the virus is still in your blood. The test usually used for this is a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR test).

How is hepatitis C treated?

Treatments for hepatitis C are constantly improving, with treatments now available that are highly effective. A healthy diet, enough sleep, and avoiding alcohol, tobacco and other drugs are also important.

While you have the infection

You need to work with your doctor to look after yourself. Make sure you have a doctor you are happy with and who has a good understanding of hepatitis C.

Even if you are already infected with hepatitis C, you can still catch a different type of the hepatitis C virus. If you have been treated, you can catch hepatitis C again. You always need to protect yourself against hepatitis C.

You also need to take responsibility for not spreading hepatitis C to anyone else.

You need to minimise the risk of catching other liver infections, such as hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Ask your doctor about hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccination.

How can hepatitis C be prevented?

There is no vaccine against hepatitis C.

You can reduce the risk of catching hepatitis C by following this advice:

  • Don’t inject drugs. If you do, never share needles, syringes, filters, water or spoons. Wash your hands or swab your fingers before touching another person’s injection site. Always use new, sterile needles and syringes. You can get these from most chemists, needle and syringe exchange outlets, and at country hospitals after hours.
  • Use a condom and/or dam (a thin latex square held over the vaginal or anal area during oral sex (external site), and water-based lubricant if there is a chance of blood-to-blood contact during sex. For example, during anal sex (because the lining of the anus is easily broken), during menstruation and during sexual practices that may involve bleeding or broken skin. You should also take precautions if you have cuts or lesions on or close to the genitals.
  • Before considering any body art (such as tattooing or piercing) make sure the body artist uses only sterilised equipment, and new razors, inks and needles each time.
  • Don’t share personal hygiene items, such as razors, toothbrushes and dental floss.
  • Healthcare workers should always use infection control procedures at work.

Translated information about hepatitis C

Arabic

Arabic – hepatitis C (PDF 183KB)

Burmese – hepatitis C (PDF 183KB)

Chinese – hepatitis C (PDF 313KB)

French – hepatitis C (PDF 96KB)

Bahasa Indonesian

Indonesian – hepatitis C (PDF 223KB)

Thai

Thai – hepatitis C (PDF 185KB)

Vietnamese

Vietnamese – hepatitis C (PDF 237KB)

Where to get help

  • See your doctor.
  • Call Hepatitis WA Helpline (9328 8538 for metropolitan callers or 1800 800 070 for country callers).
  • Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.
  • Call the Sexual Health Helpline (9227 6178 for metropolitan callers or 1800 198 205 for country callers).

Remember

  • Hepatitis C is passed on when infected blood enters your bloodstream.
  • In Australia, most infections are due to sharing needles and other drug injecting equipment.
  • The treatment cures around 8 out of every 10 people depending on the type of hepatitis C.

Acknowledgements
Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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