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Blood-borne Viruses

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that may exist in the body for decades,without symptoms, while it slowly attacks the liver. In some cases, hepatitis Ccan be fatal, and it's reaching epidemic proportions. Hundreds of millions ofpeople worldwide are believed to be infected. In the United States, it isestimated that as many as 4 million may have hepatitis C. Many are baby boomerswho experimented with intravenous and intranasal (as in cocaine) drug use in thelate 1960s and are just now developing symptoms.

"This is a silent epidemic because hepatitis C can remain dormant in thebody for decades and is responsible for fewer deaths to date (8,000 to 10,000per year in the United States) than HIV infection, it doesn't get a lot ofattention. It's estimated that more Americans will die of hepatitis C than ofAIDS in the next two to three decades and researchers still know relativelylittle about the disease, which wasn't even identified until 1989.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, the organ that eliminates toxinsand is important in metabolism. Other viruses, medications or overuse of alcoholcan cause hepatitis, as well, but these are different from infection with thehepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C is one of the three main types of viral hepatitis(hepatitis A, B and C) in the United States.

Typically, the hepatitis C virus induces no symptoms at the time of infectionand may take decades to do damage. Some 85 percent to 90 percent of people whoare exposed to the hepatitis C virus develop chronic hepatitis (chronic liverdisease). Of those, about 20 percent develop cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver,an incurable disease. Early cirrhosis may produce no symptoms; advancedcirrhosis may cause confusion, drowsiness, swelling of the abdomen and legs, andred spider-like blood vessels under the skin’s surface. About half of thosewith cirrhosis ultimately develop end-stage liver disease or liver cancer.Hepatitis C is currently the leading indication for a liver transplant.

Who's at risk for hepatitis C?

Those who should be tested for hepatitis C include:

  • Anyone who has ever injected illicit drugs (even once) or taken drugs intranasally. (The straws used to inhale cocaine may be a route of transmission.)
  • Blood transfusion recipients, especially those who received a transfusion before 1992. (Today the risk of hepatitis after a blood transfusion is much less than 1 percent.)
  • Recipients of an organ transplant prior to 1992.
  • Those who received clotting factor concentrates before 1987.
  • Health care workers or others accidentally exposed to the blood of others.
  • Anyone who undergoes Hemodialysis.
  • Hemophiliacs.
  • It has also been suggested that people who live with someone with hepatitis C may be at increased risk, but that risk appears to be small.

However, in some patients with hepatitis C, no risk factor for acquisition is found.

For more information on Hepatitis, visit the CDC's Hepatitis Branch​