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Is Hepatitis C Contagious?

What is hepatitis C (hep C)?

Picture of Hepatitis
Hepatitis C virus destroys the liver.

Hepatitis (hep C) is a form of viral hepatitis. Hepatitis C causes acute and chronic liver disease. Hepatitis C is transmitted when the virus in infected blood from one person infects another person. Hepatitis C disease is caused by a virus termed HCV (a single strand RNA virus) that infects liver cells. Hepatitis C was referred to in older scientific publications as non-A or non-B hepatitis.

Is hepatitis C contagious?

Hepatitis C is contagious. It is mainly transmitted via blood-to-blood transfer. This transmission can occur by

  • sharing needles,
  • acupuncture,
  • tattoo needles,
  • surgical or diagnostic instruments,
  • sexual contact, and
  • organ transplants.

Casual contact (including exposure to saliva and skin to skin such as with a handshake or) rarely, if ever, can transmit hepatitis C virus.

How long before I know I'm infected and have hepatitis C?

The incubation period (time from exposure to the virus to symptom development) for hep C is variable. The time period may vary from about 2 weeks to 6 months with 6-10 weeks being the average time span. However, about 80% of those infected may not develop acute symptoms.

Symptoms of hepatitis C develop slowly and include

About 70% to 90% of infected people do not clear the virus and become chronic carriers. Tests for diagnosing hepatitis C virus include detecting antibodies to the virus and a PCR test that detects virus antigens.

SLIDESHOW

Hepatitis: How Do You Get Hepatitis A, B, and C? See Slideshow

How is hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C is spread person-to-person usually by direct contact with another person's blood who is infected with hepatitis C virus. Individuals that share needles are at a high risk to become infected. Surgical and other instruments that are not properly decontaminated can also spread hepatitis C to others. Moreover, some patients that receive organ transplants from individuals that have the virus, but no symptoms, can transmit the disease to the organ transplant recipient.

How will you know when you are no longer contagious and cured of hepatitis C?

Treatments are usually long-term (for example, 12-24 weeks ) and a person is not considered "cured" until 6 months have passed with no virus detected in their blood samples. Treatments are varied according to the individual's disease.

When should you call a doctor if you think you may have hepatitis C?

If a person develops one or more of the following symptoms, they should seek medical care:

  • About 1-3 days of nausea and vomiting that is not improving
  • Yellowish color to the skin and/or the eyes
  • Dark urine
  • Abdominal pain

Let your doctor know if you shared needles with someone or you have had contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with hepatitis C.

If a person is known to have hepatitis C and develops severe nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and/or mental status changes (confusion or unresponsiveness, for example), they should be evaluated in an emergency department immediately.

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Reviewed on 4/13/2020
References
Chopra, S, MD, et al. "Patient education: Hepatitis C (Beyond the Basics)." UpToDate. Updated: Jun 26, 2016.
<https://www.uptodate.com/contents/hepatitis-c-beyond-the-basics>

Hepatitis C. WHO. 2020.
<http://www.who.int/csr/disease/hepatitis/whocdscsrlyo2003/en/index3.html>
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