December 1, 2015
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Hepatitis C (cont.)

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How is hepatitis C spread, and is it contagious?

  • Hepatitis C is spread (transmitted) most efficiently through exposure to infected blood.
  • The most common route of transmission is needles shared among users of illicit drugs.
  • Accidental needle-sticks in healthcare workers also have transmitted the virus. The average risk of getting hepatitis C infection from a stick with a contaminated needle is 1.8% (range 0% to 10%)
  • Prior to 1992, some people acquired the hepatitis C infection from transfusions of blood or blood products. Since 1992, all blood products have been screened for hepatitis C, and cases of hepatitis C due to blood transfusion now are extremely rare.
  • Hepatitis C infection also can be passed from mother to unborn child. Approximately 4 of every 100 infants born to hepatitis C-infected mothers become infected with the virus.
  • A small number of cases are transmitted through sexual intercourse. The risk of transmission of hepatitis C from an infected individual to a non-infected spouse or sexual partner without the use of condoms over a lifetime has been estimated to be between 1% and 4%.
  • Poor infection control practices during tattooing and body piercing potentially can lead to spread of infection. (This has not been reported in licensed, commercial tattooing facilities where it has been studied.)
  • Finally, there have been some outbreaks of hepatitis C when instruments exposed to blood have been re-used without appropriate cleaning between patients.

What conditions beyond the liver are associated with hepatitis C infection?

Most of the signs and symptoms of hepatitis C infection relate to the liver. Less commonly, hepatitis C infection causes conditions beyond of the liver.

  • Hepatitis C infection can cause the body to produce unusual antibodies called 'cryoglobulins.' These cryoglobulins cause inflammation of the arteries (vasculitis) which may damage the skin, joints, and kidneys. Patients with cryoglobulinemia (cryoglobulins in the blood) may have:
    • joint pain,
    • arthritis,
    • a raised purple rash on the legs, and
    • generalized pain or swelling of their bodies.
  • In addition, these patients may develop Raynaud's phenomenon in which the fingers and toes turn color (white, then purple, then red) and become painful at cold temperatures.
  • Hepatitis C is known to be associated with two skin conditions, lichen planus and porphyria cutanea tarda.
  • For reasons that are unclear, diabetes is three times more common among patients with chronic hepatitis C infection than in the general population.
  • Low platelet counts may occur as a result of the destruction of platelets by antibodies.
  • Hepatitis C also is associated with B-cell lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/26/2015


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