October 2012

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The virus infects the liver, the part of the body that helps digest food and remove waste from the body. The infection can result in a short-term illness (less than 6 months). However, the majority of people infected develop chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis C infection can cause liver failure and liver cancer.

How Can Hepatitis C Be Spread?

You can get hepatitis C through direct blood to blood contact with an infected person.

You can get hepatitis C if you:

  • Ever, even once, share a needle (for injection drug use), straws (for intranasal use), pipes, spoons, cookers and other drug-related equipment
  • Received a blood transfusion or blood product before 1992. After this date, sensitive blood screening tests were introduced
  • Have lived in an area where Hepatitis C virus is more common and have been exposed through invasive medical or cosmetic procedures
  • Receive a tattoo, body piercing, electrolysis, acupuncture, or medical procedures with non-sterile needles or equipment
  • Engage in unprotected sexual contact and if the sexual activity involves blood to blood contact (e.g., during menstruation, or if there is tearing of the skin)
  • Are born to a mother infected with hepatitis C
  • Share sharp instruments or personal hygiene equipment with an infected person (e.g., razors, scissors, nail clippers, nail files, toothbrushes or glucose monitors)
  • Have a needle-stick injury with exposure to infected blood

Hepatitis C is not spread by casual contact such as hugging, kissing or shaking hands. It is also not spread by sneezing or coughing. The virus is not found in food or water.

What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?

Most people infected with HCV show no symptoms initially. They may be unaware of their infection and may spread the hepatitis C virus unknowingly.

For those who experience symptoms, the most commonly reported symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Reduced appetite
  • Sore muscles and joints
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Jaundice (a yellow colour in the skin or eyes).

How Can I Know for Sure If I Have Hepatitis C?

Your health care provider can order a hepatitis C blood test for you.

Is There a Vaccine to Prevent Getting Hepatitis C?

Currently, there is no vaccine for the prevention of hepatitis C infection.

Can Hepatitis C Be Prevented?

Yes. The best way to keep yourself and others safe from getting hepatitis C virus is to:

  • Never share needles, straws, pipes or any other drug-related equipment.
  • Treat all blood and body fluids as potentially infectious. Wear latex gloves if you are likely to be in contact with someone else’s blood or body fluids.
  • Avoid blood-to-blood contact during sexual activity. Practise safer sex practices by using latex condoms. If you have hepatitis C, inform your sexual partners.
  • Disinfect any non-disposable equipment that has been in contact with blood or body fluids. Avoid sharing personal use items such as razors, toothbrushes etc.
  • Ensure any needles used in tattooing, piercing or acupuncture are sterile. Avoid sharing ink, jewellery or homemade equipment.
  • Do not donate blood, blood products, organ tissues and semen if you have hepatitis C.

Can Hepatitis C Be Treated?

Yes, especially in the acute phase and in some cases treatment is very important to help minimize complications from the infection. Your doctor can advise if treatment is appropriate for you.

Does Hepatitis C Affect Pregnancy?

There does not appear to be an increased risk of complications in pregnancy when a woman is infected with hepatitis C virus.

Can Babies Get Hepatitis C from Their Mothers?

Yes, however, hepatitis C is not commonly passed from a pregnant woman to her baby. About 4 to 7% of infants born to mothers with hepatitis C become infected with the virus. Women, who have larger amounts of the hepatitis C virus in their blood and are also infected with HIV, have a higher risk of transmitting the infection to their baby at birth.

Can a Mother Infected with Hepatitis C Breastfeed?

Breastfeeding is not considered a risk for transmission; however, if the nipples are bleeding or cracked, it is recommended that you stop breastfeeding until they have healed.

More Information

Call Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600 (TTY at 416-392-0658) or speak to your healthcare provider.