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Hepatitis C Virus (HCV)

Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and is the most common chronic blood borne infection in the U.S. For some people, hepatitis C is a short-term (acute) illness, but for more than half of people who become infected with the hepatitis C virus, it becomes a long-term, chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis C can result in serious, even life-threatening health problems like cirrhosis and liver cancer. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, and the best way to prevent hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease. Getting tested is important because an early diagnosis can cure most people in 8-12 weeks.

OSDH Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Service provides hepatitis B & C prevention activities, including but not limited to, education, vaccination and Perinatal hepatitis B prevention activities.

This site contains messaging that might not be appropriate for all audiences. Since Hepatitis infections can be spread through sexual practices or by sharing needles, prevention messages and programs on this website may address these topics.  If you are not seeking such information or may be offended by such materials, please exit this website.


Symptoms

In people who develop symptoms, the average time from exposure to symptom onset is 2–12 weeks, but can range up to 26 weeks (approximately 6 months).

Many people who have hepatitis C do not exhibit any symptoms, and, as a result do not know, that they are infected with the virus. If symptoms do occur, they include: fever, tiredness, lack of appetite, upset stomach, vomiting, dark urine, grey-colored stool, joint pain, and yellow skin and eyes. 

Acute Hepatitis C is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the Hepatitis C virus. If symptoms occur with an acute infection, they may take decades to develop. Only 20-30% of newly infected people develop symptoms of acute disease. An acute infection can range in severity from a very mild illness with the person experiencing no symptoms, to a very serious condition in which the individual would have to be hospitalized. About 20% of people are able to "clear" the virus without receiving treatment in the first 6 months. The reason why this happens to some people is not well known. Most people however are not able to clear the infection by their body’s response and about 70%-85% of people who become infected with the hepatitis C virus go on to develop a "chronic" or lifelong infection.

Chronic Hepatitis C is a long-term illness that occurs when the Hepatitis C virus remains in a person's body. When symptoms occur in a chronic case, it is usually a sign of liver disease that is now advanced including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer.

Testing

Doctors would usually perform a blood test that is called the Hepatitis C Antibody test which is intended to look for the antibodies released by the body in response to the hepatitis C virus. If a person clears the virus from their system, the antibodies still remain in the blood. Therefore, a positive antibody test means that a person has been infected with HCV at a certain point in time. This does not necessarily mean that a person has an active HCV infection. An RNA test needs to then be carried out to determine if the individual has an active or current HCV infection or not. The HCV RNA test is a molecular diagnostic test that specifically tests for hepatitis C RNA. This process is called Nucleic Acid Test (NAT) or Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT). This test becomes positive 1-2 weeks after an initial HCV infection occurs. It is therefore a test that should be done once the antibody test result turns positive.

Who Should Get Tested?

The only way that one can know if they have hepatitis C is if to get tested. HCV testing is recommended for any anyone who is at increased risk of HCV infection. Such people include:

  • Persons born from 1945 through 1965 (estimated to account for 3/4 of the HCV infections in the U.S.)
  • Persons who have ever injected illegal drugs, including those who injected only once, many years ago
  • Persons who received clotting factor concentrates that were made before 1987
  • Recipients of blood transfusions or solid organ transplants before July 1992
  • Patients who have ever received long-term hemodialysis treatment
  • Persons with known exposures to HCV, such as healthcare workers after a needle stick involving HCV positive blood and recipients of blood or organs from a donor who later tested positive for HCV
  • All persons with HIV

Transmission

Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from an individual that has been infected with the hepatitis C virus enters the body of an individual that is not infected. Many of the 2.7-3.9 million people who are infected with HCV are either unaware of their status and have not sought treatment, or those who do know they are infected often do not know how and/or when they got infected. Today, most people become infected with hepatitis C virus by:

  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment used to inject drugs
  • Needle stick injuries in healthcare settings
  • Being born to a mother that is hepatitis C positive
  • Another way that hepatitis C virus can be spread is through getting tattoos and body piercings in facilities that are not licensed, in informal settings or with equipment that are not sterile
  • About 6% if infants that born to mothers that are infected with hepatitis C will get the virus. This transmission occurs at birth and there is no prophylaxis available to prevent it from happening.

Hepatitis C can survive outside the body at room temperature on environmental surfaces for at least 16 hours but no longer than four (4) days.

Before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992, Hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Although uncommon, outbreaks of Hepatitis C have occurred from blood contamination in medical settings.

Can HCV be transmitted through sexual activity?

It is rare for hepatitis C to be transmitted through sexual contact, although not impossible. The risk of transmission is low at about 0-3%. Having a sexually transmitted disease or HIV, having sex with multiple partners, or having rough sex increases the risk a person has of acquiring hepatitis C virus through sexual contact. Practice of safer sex using latex, polyurethane (plastic), barriers for oral sex, is highly encouraged.

 

Prevention

Although there is currently no vaccine to prevent Hepatitis C, research is being conducted to develop one. There are however numerous treatment options available to achieve a "Sustained Virologic Response" or cure. The best way to prevent a HCV infection is to avoid high-risk behaviors, like sharing needles.

Resources

The OSDH Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Service provides hepatitis B & C prevention activities, including but not limited to, education, vaccination and Perinatal hepatitis B prevention activities.


Contact Information

Mailing Address:
Oklahoma State Department of Health
Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Services
123 Robert S. Kerr Ave, Ste 1702
Oklahoma City, OK 73102-6406

Physical Address:
Oklahoma State Department of Health
123 Robert S. Kerr Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK

Phone: (405) 426-8400
Email: SHHRFax@health.ok.gov

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