Hepatitis C is a disease caused by a virus that attacks your liver. It can do significant damage to your liver, and in some cases can even lead to death. Unfortunately, the virus which causes hepatitis C can be passed from one person to another. There are known risk factors which can increase the chances of giving hepatitis C to someone else.
It is estimated that approximately three million people in the United States are carriers of the hepatitis C virus. It is also estimated that approximately one and a half million other people have been previously exposed to the virus, but are not actively infected. Worldwide, the numbers are even worse. It is estimated that over 170 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a very serious infection. Early symptoms of hepatitis C infection include jaundice, a general feeling of being unwell, muscle and joint pains, and the lack of appetite. These symptoms will often persist for several months. After the acute phase of infection is passed, over 80% of people who are exposed to the hepatitis C virus will go on to develop chronic hepatitis C. Over time, 20% of people with hepatitis C will develop liver cirrhosis and liver failure.
There are known risk factors for giving hepatitis C to someone else. Over half of all cases of hepatitis C are caused by intravenous drug use. People who use cocaine are at greater risk for contracting hepatitis C. Body piercing, and kidney dialysis have also been associated with the transmission of hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C can also be transmitted via sexual contact with an infected person. People who have multiple sexual partners are at increased risk for contracting hepatitis C. If you have hepatitis C, it is possible to give it to someone else if you have unprotected sex with that person.
Some types of viral hepatitis are able to be passed from the mother to a child via breast-feeding. In the case of hepatitis C, this type of transmission has not been documented.
It is much easier to give hepatitis C to someone who has a compromised immune system. People with HIV are often co-infected with hepatitis C. In fact, it is estimated that up to 30% of people with HIV are also co-infected with the hepatitis C virus. Having sex with, or sharing intravenous drug needles with someone who has HIV greatly increases their risk of contracting hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C can be given to someone else by any exposure to contaminated blood. There have even been documented cases of hepatitis C being transmitted from one person to another during fights which become bloody.
A hepatitis C infection has an incubation period of approximately 6 to eight weeks. This means that you can be exposed to the virus and not experience symptoms for up to two months. Oftentimes this makes it quite difficult to determine who may have exposed you to hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C has serious long-term health consequences. As such, it is important to try to limit risk of exposure to hepatitis C as much is possible. There are treatments available for hepatitis C, but many of them are not 100% effective. If you have questions about how you can give hepatitis C to someone else, speak with your doctor or nurse practitioner.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD
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