Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a virus that can infect the liver. If left untreated, it can sometimes cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to the liver over many years. You can become infected with it if you come into contact with the blood of an infected person.

Symptoms of hepatitis C

Hepatitis C often doesn't have any noticeable symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged. Many people have the infection without realising it.

When symptoms do occur, they can be mistaken for another condition. Symptoms can include:

The only way to know for certain if these symptoms are caused by hepatitis C is to get tested.

How hepatitis C is spread

The hepatitis C virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact.

Some ways the infection can be spread include:

  • sharing unsterilised needles – particularly needles used to inject recreational drugs 
  • sharing razors or toothbrushes
  • from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby
  • through unprotected sex – although this is very rare

In Northern Ireland, most hepatitis C infections occur in people who inject drugs or have injected them in the past. It's estimated around one fifth of those who inject drugs in Northern Ireland have the infection.

When to seek medical advice

Seek medical advice if you have:

  • persistent symptoms of hepatitis C
  • there's a risk you're infected, even if you don't have any symptoms

A blood test can be carried out to see if you have the infection. 

Your GP, sexual health clinic, genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or addiction service all offer testing for hepatitis C.

Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent or limit any damage to your liver. It can also help make sure the infection isn't passed on to other people.

Treatments for hepatitis C

Hepatitis C can be treated with medicines that stop the virus multiplying inside the body. These usually need to be taken for several weeks.

Complications of hepatitis C

If the infection is left untreated for many years, some people with hepatitis C will develop scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Over time, this can cause the liver to stop working properly.

In severe cases, life-threatening problems such as liver failure orLiver cancer can eventually develop.

Treating hepatitis C as early as possible can help reduce the risk of these problems occurring.

Preventing hepatitis C

There's no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are ways to reduce your risk of becoming infected.

These include:

  • not sharing any drug-injecting equipment with other people – including needles and other equipment such as syringes, spoons and filters
  • not sharing razors or toothbrushes that might be contaminated with blood

The risk of getting hepatitis C through sex is very low. However, it may be higher if blood is present, such as menstrual blood or from minor bleeding during anal sex.

Condoms aren't usually necessary to prevent hepatitis C for long-term heterosexual couples. However, it's a good idea to use them when having anal sex or sex with a new partner.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published February 2018

This page is due for review March 2019

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