What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C is one of a group of viruses that can cause this and is the most common type of viral hepatitis in the UK. If left untreated, it can cause serious liver damage.
What are the symptoms?
Many people have no symptoms and carry the infection without knowing until there is significant damage to the liver. People who do have symptoms may experience:
- Flu-like symptoms, such as tiredness, high temperature, muscles pains, and headaches
- Feeling sick
- Abdominal pain
- Feeling tired all the time
If you think you may have been exposed to hepatitis C and are experiencing any of the symptoms above, you should get tested as soon as you can.
How do you catch it?
Hepatitis C is passed on through blood-to-blood contact with someone who is infected. This can be through sharing needles, particularly needles used to inject recreational drugs, as well as sharing razors or toothbrushes.
While uncommon, it can also be passed on by having sex without a condom where there is a “micro trauma” causing small amounts of bleeding. The risk of this is greater during anal sex.
In the UK, all blood products have been screened for hepatitis C since 1991, so any blood transfusions/blood products received since then are not a risk.
Many people do not realise that hepatitis C can be passed on from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth. There are things that can be done to help prevent onward transmission from mother to baby if diagnosed during pregnancy.
How do you prevent it?
Unlike hepatitis B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. However, there are ways to reduce your risk of becoming infected, such as:
- Not sharing any drug-injecting equipment including needles, syringes, spoons, or filters
- Not sharing razors, toothbrushes or towels that might be contaminated with blood
- Using condoms when having anal sex or sex with a new partner
How do you get tested?
If you think that you may have been infected, there are lots of options for getting a free and confidential hepatitis C test. You can visit any NHS sexual health service, including those run by Virgin Care, visit your GP and get tests at some young people’s centres like those run by Brook.
Testing for hepatitis C is a simple blood test. However, it can take several months for the infection to show up in a test from the time of infection. If your risk was recent, you may be advised to have a repeat test.
It is possible to pay for at-home hepatitis C testing kits but the accuracy of these can vary so we advise that you speak to your local pharmacist or GP first.
If you test positive, do not panic. You will be given support and information and advised to see your GP first to have some further tests and find out more about your infection. Depending on your stage of infection, your GP may look after you themselves or refer you to the local liver specialist team.
Some people have evidence of having been exposed to hepatitis C at some time in their lives, but no evidence of active infection at the moment. They will not need treatment at this time but may need follow up tests in the future.
You will be helped to identify anyone else who may have been at risk so that they can also get tested. It is important not to have sex without a condom with anyone, even a regular partner, or to share injecting equipment as you may pass the virus onto others.
What treatment is available?
Hepatitis C can often be treated successfully by taking a combination of medicines.
For hepatitis C in the early stages, treatment may not be required as the body may fight off the virus on its own. Painkillers, may be given to manage symptoms and you may have another blood test after a few months.
If the infection continues for several months, people will normally be given injections and/or prescribed tablets to prevent liver damage. Newer medications are becoming available in tablet form that show very encouraging results and may cure many people following a course of treatment for three to six months.
- NHS Choices has lots of information about STIs including a specific page on hepatitis C
- Brook has more information and advice on STIs on their website written for people under 25 including a page on hepatitis
- The Hepatitis C Trust is a national UK charity for hepatitis C run by people with personal experience of hepatitis C. You’ll find lots advice and signposting to support on their website. They also run a confidential national helpline 0845 223 4424