What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C (also called hep C or HCV) is a virus that damages the liver and is transmitted through the blood. It is not found in sexual fluids, but if blood gets into sexual fluids (through cuts or sores) then it can be transmitted through sex. Both hepatitis C and HIV can lead to long-term damage. If you have HIV and hepatitis C, it is more difficult to fight both.

You can be infected with hep C for years without knowing it. If you have ever shared needles for drugs, steroids, hormones, or anything else, it might be helpful to get tested. The same goes for if you’ve had a tattoo or piercings, or if you ever had blood transfusion before 1989. Hep C can be treated and, in many cases, cured (eliminated from the body), so the sooner you know, the better your options. It’s also good to know your hep C status if you have HIV and are going to start treatment.

How does hepatitis C affect the body?

Hepatitis C doesn’t always produce symptoms, which is why you might not know you have it. Most often it is spread through sharing drug use equipment for injection or inhalation, but it can also be spread through sex when blood is present and from mother to baby during pregnancy. If you have HIV or if you may have come in contact with hep C, it’s a good idea to get tested for it.

When you’ve first been infected it might feel like you have the flu, although many people won’t notice anything. This is why testing is so important. If you do feel something in the first month or so after infection, you might have these symptoms:

  • unusual tiredness
  • aches and joint pain
  • night sweats
  • loss of appetite
  • a yellowish change in the colour of your skin or eyes (jaundice)

Many people in Canada are living with hepatitis C. About 25 % (1 in 4) of people who get hepatitis C will be able to fight it off on their own, but the rest can’t. Of those who can’t, some people will do better than others. There is the possibility that you can develop liver cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer. This is more likely if you drink alcohol, use drugs, or have HIV.

Can hepatitis C be cured?

Hep C can be treated, and for many people, cured. Depending on your overall health and HIV status, hepatitis C treatment can take between two and six months before doctors can see if it’s successful.

The catch is that even if you are cured, you can get hepatitis C again. To prevent getting re-infected, follow safe drug use and sex guidelines:

  • Try not to share any drug equipment, including needles, pipes, and spoons. Have your own equipment.
  • If you’re getting tattooed, make sure all equipment is sterilized and anything disposable (needles, dyes) is for your use only.
  • Use condoms for vaginal and anal sex and any other activity that could expose you to even tiny amounts of blood.
  • Use your own toothbrushes and razors.

For more in-depth information on hep C diagnosis, treatment and care concerns, visit the Pacific Hepatitis C Network.