Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that infects the cells of the liver. Most cases occur in people who share needles or injecting equipment contaminated with traces of blood to inject 'street drugs'. Some people clear the infection naturally. Some people with persistent infection remain free of symptoms, although others have symptoms. Persistent infection can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and may lead to liver cancer. Treatment can clear the infection in over half of cases.
What does the liver do?
The liver is in the upper right part of the abdomen. It has many functions which include:
- Storing glycogen (fuel for the body) which is made from sugars. When required, glycogen is broken down into glucose which is released into the bloodstream.
- Helping to process fats and proteins from digested food.
- Making proteins that are essential for blood to clot (clotting factors).
- Processing many medicines which you may take.
- Helping to remove or process alcohol, poisons and toxins from the body.
- Making bile which passes from the liver to the gut down the bile duct. Bile breaks down the fats in food so that they can be absorbed from the bowel.
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. There are many causes of hepatitis. For example, drinking too much alcohol, various drugs and chemicals, and also several different viruses can cause hepatitis.
What is hepatitis C?
One virus that causes hepatitis is called the hepatitis C virus. This leaflet is only about hepatitis C. See separate leaflets called Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B, which are caused by different viruses. Hepatitis C is also sometimes called hep C or HCV. Hepatitis C was only discovered in the 1980s so it is still a relatively new disease; some aspects of this disease are still not completely understood.
Hepatitis C is a virus which is carried in the bloodstream to the liver. It can then affect and damage your liver. However, this virus can also affect other parts of the body, including the digestive system, the immune system and the brain.
There are six types of hepatitis C virus, which all have different genes. These different types are called genotypes and they are numbered 1 to 6. Almost all people in the UK who have hepatitis C have genotype 1, genotype 2, or genotype 3. It is important to know which type you have, as different types respond differently to treatment. It is possible to be infected with more than one type of hepatitis C at the same time.
Genotype 1 is the most common subtype of hepatitis C in England and Wales, affecting around half of people with hepatitis, and is actually the most resistant one to treatment.
How common is hepatitis C?
The exact number of people infected is not known. There are around 216,000 people chronically infected with hepatitis C in the UK. Worldwide, over 180 million people are infected.
The number of people infected with hepatitis C is increasing. In 2020, it has been estimated that around 15,840 people in England will be living with either HCV-related cirrhosis or liver cancer caused by hepatitis C. Most cases are in people who inject illegal drugs. It is estimated that up to half of injecting drug users become infected with hepatitis C.
How can you get hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease. The main source of infection is from blood from an infected person.
- Most cases are caused by using contaminated needles or injecting equipment (spoons, syringes, filters, water for injection, etc) to inject drugs ('sharing needles'). Even a tiny amount of an infected person's blood left on a needle is enough to cause spread to others.
- Some people who received blood transfusions or blood prior to 1991 were infected with hepatitis C from some donor blood. Since 1991 all blood and blood products donated in the UK are screened for the hepatitis C virus.
- There is also a risk of contracting hepatitis C from needlestick accidents, or other injuries involving blood spillage from infected people.
- There is a small risk of contracting the virus from sharing toothbrushes, razors, and other such items which may be contaminated with infected blood. (The virus can live outside the body, possibly for up to four days.)
- There is even a small risk from inhaling drugs like cocaine, as these can make the inside of your nose bleed. If that happens, tiny spots of blood can fall on to the note you are using and, if that is used by someone else, your blood can travel up their nose and into their bloodstream.
- There is also a small risk from re-used equipment used for tattooing, body piercing, acupuncture, etc.
- There is a small risk that an infected mother can pass on the infection to her baby.
- There is a small risk that an infected person can pass on the virus whilst having sex.
The virus is not passed on during normal social contact, such as holding hands, hugging, or sharing cups or crockery.
What are the symptoms and how does hepatitis C progress?
Many people with hepatitis C feel entirely well and have few or no symptoms. Any symptoms that may be present (see below) are often initially thought to be due to another illness. This may mean that hepatitis C may be diagnosed when you have had the virus for some time. Many people have hepatitis C without knowing it.
It is helpful to think of two phases of infection with hepatitis C virus. An acute phase when you first become infected and a chronic (persistent) phase in people where the virus remains long-term.
Acute means 'new' or 'for a short time'. This phase lasts for the first six months. When first infected with the virus, most people have no symptoms, or only mild ones. If symptoms do occur, they develop about 7-8 weeks after being exposed to the virus and may include: feeling sick, vomiting and feeling generally unwell. Some people become jaundiced (go 'yellow'). This is due to a build-up of the chemical bilirubin which is made in the liver and spills into the blood in some liver conditions. It is unusual to get severe symptoms.
Following the initial infection:
- In about 1 in 5 cases the virus is cleared from the body by the immune system within 2-6 months. If this happens then you will have no long-term effects from the virus. Younger people and women are more likely to clear the virus in this way.
- In about 4 in 5 cases, the virus remains active in the liver and bloodstream long-term. This is called chronic infection with hepatitis C.
A chronic hepatitis C infection is when the infection lasts for longer than six months. The course of the chronic infection varies considerably between people and it is very unpredictable. Of those people who develop chronic infection:
- Some people have mild or no symptoms. However, even if you have no symptoms, you can still pass on the hepatitis C virus to others who may develop problems.
- Some people develop some symptoms due to persistent inflammation of the liver. For example, feeling sick, lack of appetite, intolerance of alcohol, pains over the liver, jaundice and depression. The most common symptoms of chronic hepatitis C are extreme tiredness, poor concentration and memory problems, and muscle and joint aches. There is actually no relationship between the severity of symptoms and the degree of liver damage. This means that some people can have liver inflammation without having any symptoms.
- About one third of people with chronic hepatitis C infection develop cirrhosis over a period of about 20-30 years. Cirrhosis is like a 'scarring' of the liver, which can cause serious problems and 'liver failure' when it is severe. (See separate leaflet called Cirrhosis.) Some people with chronic hepatitis C have no symptoms for many years until they develop cirrhosis. Only when the liver starts to fail with cirrhosis do symptoms appear.
- A small number of people who develop cirrhosis go on to develop liver cancer.
How is hepatitis C diagnosed?
A simple blood test can detect antibodies to the hepatitis C virus in your blood. (Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system to attack viruses, bacteria, etc.) A positive test means that you have at some stage been infected with hepatitis C.
However, this test remains positive even in people who have cleared the virus from their body. (The antibodies remain even if the virus has gone.) Also, it can take up to six months for the antibody test to become positive after a person has first been infected, as the body may take a while to make these antibodies. So, a negative test does not necessarily rule out a recently acquired infection. A repeat test in a few months may be advised in some people who have recently been at risk of catching hepatitis C.
If the antibody test is positive, then a further blood test is needed to see if the virus is still present. This is called a PCR test. This is a more specialised test which detects particles of the virus. Tests may also be done to find exactly which type of hepatitis C virus you are infected with.
Assessing the severity of the infection
If you are found to have virus present then other tests may be advised to check on the extent of inflammation or damage to the liver. For example:
- Blood tests called liver function tests. These measure the activity of enzymes (chemicals) and other substances made in the liver. This gives a general guide as to whether the liver is inflamed, and how well it is working. See separate leaflet called Liver function tests.
- An ultrasound scan of the liver.
- Other tests may be done if cirrhosis or other complications develop.
- There are other specialised blood tests being developed which assess the development and severity of cirrhosis.
- A liver biopsy (small sample of the liver taken to look at under the microscope) used to be recommended before considering treatment. However, this is no longer routine prior to treatment. See separate leaflet called Liver biopsy.
How can I prevent passing on the virus to others?
If you have a current hepatitis C infection you should:
- Not share any injecting equipment such as needles, syringes, etc.
- Not donate blood or carry a donor card.
- Not share razors, toothbrushes or anything else that may possibly be contaminated with blood.
- Use condoms when having sex. The risk of passing on the hepatitis C virus during sex is small, but is reduced even further by using condoms. However, your partner in a regular faithful relationship may accept the small risk of having sex without condoms.
There is currently no vaccine available to protect against hepatitis C.
What is the treatment of hepatitis C?
The treatment of hepatitis C has advanced in recent years which has greatly improved the outlook for people with hepatitis C. The main aim of treatment is to clear the hepatitis C virus from the body and so prevent severe liver damage leading to cirrhosis.
As the damage caused by the hepatitis C is usually very gradual, the time at which people with hepatitis C start treatment varies between cases. Your specialist will be able to discuss with you in detail the most appropriate time for you to start treatment.
The usual treatment is a combination of two different medicines called pegylated interferon and ribavirin. Overall, this treatment can clear the virus ('cure') in over half of all cases. However, the outlook does vary depending on the type (genotype) of the virus. The treatment clears the virus in almost half of those infected with genotype 1, but clears the virus in about 4 in 5 people infected with genotype 2 or 3.
Pegylated interferon is also known as peginterferon. It is a form of a medicine called interferon which is similar to a substance produced in your body, also called interferon. It helps your body get rid of the hepatitis C virus. This may stop the virus damaging your liver. This is usually given as one injection each week.
Ribavirin is a drug that fights viruses. It is given in combination with pegylated interferon and is taken each day as a tablet or as a liquid. A course of treatment lasts 6-12 months, depending upon your type of hepatitis C. It takes about 12 weeks to tell if this treatment is working. You will usually have a blood test about 12 weeks after you start the medicines, to see if the amount of virus in your body has reduced. If so, then with the full course of treatment you have a good chance of completely clearing the virus from your body.
Other drugs such as boceprevir and telaprevir may be given in some cases. These are newer drugs that work by preventing the hepatitis C virus from reproducing in the body. They are both given as tablets.
Side-effects from these treatments can occur which may include tiredness, feeling sick, headaches, depression. Some people need to change their treatment, or take a lower strength, if they have troublesome side-effects. Your doctor or nurse will monitor your blood tests throughout the treatment to detect some side-effects.
The treatment of hepatitis C is a developing area of medicine. There are some newer drugs that have been introduced in the last few years that show promise to improve the outlook. New treatments continue to be developed. The specialist who knows your case can give more accurate information about the outlook for your particular situation.
For some people with advanced cirrhosis, liver transplantation may be an option. Although this is a major operation, the outlook following a liver transplant can be very good. However, the new liver may also eventually become damaged by the persisting hepatitis C infection.
Diet and alcohol
Most people with chronic hepatitis C will be advised to eat a normal healthy balanced diet. Ideally, anybody with inflammation of the liver should not drink alcohol. If you already have liver inflammation, alcohol increases the risk and speed of developing cirrhosis.
If you have never been infected with hepatitis A or B in the past then you should be vaccinated against these viruses. It is also recommended that you are vaccinated against influenza and pneumococcus infection. Your GP or practice nurse will be able to give you more information about this.
Further help & information
Dr Tim Kenny
Dr Louise Newson
Dr Helen Huins