What is it?

Hepatitis C, sometimes called hep C or HCV, is a virus carried in the blood which infects and can damage the liver, causing inflammation (swelling and tenderness). The liver is an important organ in the body that processes nutrients from food, filters the blood, and helps fight infections.  When the liver is inflamed or damaged, it cannot work as well as usual.

Acute hepatitis C occurs within the first 6 months following infection with the virus.  Infection does not usually cause symptoms at this stage, so many people are unaware that they have been infected.  If 100 people were infected with hepatitis C, around 25 would clear the virus during the first 6 months.  The other 75 would develop chronic infection.

Chronic hepatitis C is an infection that lasts longer than 6 months.  Over time, the virus can damage the liver and this can cause scarring of the liver (fibrosis) and then a hardening of the liver (cirrhosis).  Some people with advanced cirrhosis will develop liver failure, liver cancer or will need a liver transplant.

Transmission

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus (BBV); it is spread by blood to blood contact.

Hepatitis C can be transmitted in the following ways:

  • Sharing equipment if you inject drugs including needles, syringes, filters, spoons or water – high risk
  • Receiving blood in hospital (blood product infusions) in UK before September 1991 – high risk
  • Sharing straws or rolled bank notes to snort drugs – medium risk
  • Mother to baby transmission – medium risk
  • Working in an environment that may involve contact with infectious blood or body fluids containing blood – medium risk
  • Medical or dental treatment abroad in countries where infection control procedures may be poor – medium risk
  • Tattoos, piercings, acupuncture or electrolysis in unlicensed premises (such as prison, abroad etc) – medium risk
  • Sharing personal items such as razors, hair clippers, toothbrushes, nail scissors and tweezers – low risk
  • Sex* – low risk

*The risk of sexual transmission of hepatitis C is low however it can be more common if bleeding occurs such as during anal or rough sex or when a woman has their period

Hepatitis C cannot be transmitted through normal social contact.  There is no risk to your friends and family from everyday activities like hugging and kissing, sharing toilets or sharing cups and plates.

Prevention

Whether you think you may have hepatitis C or not, you can reduce the risk of spreading the virus by following these simple steps:

  • If you inject drugs and/or steroids, or snort cocaine, never share anything you use for injecting or snorting this includes needles, syringes, straws or bank notes, filters, spoons, water, citric acid or vitamin C, tourniquets or any other equipment
  • When travelling abroad, make sure any medical equipment used to treat you is sterile
  • Make sure that only sterile needles are used if you are about to have acupuncture, a tattoo or a body piercing (If possible see that the needles come from a new sterile pack)
  • Always use your own toothbrush, razor, scissors, nail clippers and other personal items.
  • Carefully clean cuts and wounds and cover them with a waterproof dressing
  • Clean up blood using undiluted household bleach for floors and work surfaces and wash your hands and any skin that have been in contact with blood
  • Wear rubber gloves if handling anyone else’s blood or any articles that might be contaminated with blood
  • Safely dispose of any blood-stained materials such as sanitary towels or tampons
  • You can be vaccinated to prevent hepatitis A and B but currently there is no vaccine which can protect against hepatitis C.

Testing

If you think you might be at risk of having hepatitis C, a simple blood test will tell you.

A number of people in Tayside receive a Dry Blood Spot Test.  This involves pricking your finger and spotting the blood onto a special piece of card that is sent to the laboratory to be tested for antibodies.

If your test is reactive; this means you have had the hepatitis C virus at some stage, but you may not have a chronic infection.

A further blood sample will be taken to see if the hepatitis C is still active (reproducing) in your system, this is called a PCR test.

If the PCR test is positive, this means you have chronic hepatitis C and your GP or other worker will refer you to the Hepatitis Specialist Service.

The good news is that effective treatments are available that can cure hepatitis C.  Also, there are things you can do to help your liver and improve your health.  If you have been diagnosed with hepatitis C infection we recommend that you attend clinical care appointments, consider treatment, and take steps to look after your liver and your general health.

Treatment

There have been a lot of developments over the last 5 years in the field of hepatitis C. Effective treatments are now available and over 97% of people who complete a course, are cured hepatitis C.

The newest treatments involve a course of tablets taken over 8 – 12 weeks with very few side effects.

Services & Team

Tayside Hepatitis Specialist Service

The Hepatitis Service is based at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee.  Clinics are held at locations throughout Tayside.  For more information on referral or clinics, contact the specialist nurses on 01382 740 078.

Myths

 

“Myths” and mis-information, contribute greatly to the stigma around hepatitis and sexually transmitted infections. Below you will find a series of commonly held beliefs, have a look and get the facts!

 

FALSE – Not only can patients with hepatitis C be treated, they can also be cured. Today, there are more treatment options than ever before.  “Cured” means that the hep C virus is not detectable in your blood 3 months after treatment has ended.

If you have ever had hepatitis C, your blood will always contain hep C antibodies and antibody tests will always show up as positive or reactive however this does not mean you are infectious. A further test called a PCR test is required to show if the virus is currently active in your blood.

FALSE – The newest treatments are a course of tablets taken over 8 – 12 weeks with very few side effects.  The older treatments for hep C involved weekly injections of interferon for up to a year; with a number of side effects but this treatment is a thing of the past.

TRUE – Though it’s rare, you can get hep C through sexual contact. This is more likely to occur in men who have sex with men where bleeding occurs such as during anal or rough sex or when a woman has their period.

TRUE – Hep C is rarely spread this way but the virus can survive outside the body at room temperature. It can live on surfaces for several weeks so it is important to clean surfaces if infected blood gets on them using a mixture of 1 part bleach and 10 parts water while wearing rubber gloves.

FALSE – There is not currently a hepatitis C vaccine. Vaccines are only available for hepatitis A and B.