Hepatitis C (hep C) is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver. The liver is an important part of the body’s digestive system and performs functions such as digesting fats and filtering toxins, so when it isn’t working properly, you can feel very ill.
Hep C is passed on through blood-to-blood contact, most commonly through methods such as sharing unsterile needles, syringes and other drug injecting equipment.
Hep C can also be spread through:
- unsterile piercing and tattooing equipment (particularly when done overseas)
- sharing toothbrushes, razors or sex toys that may have blood on them
- pregnancy or childbirth (mother to baby)
- one person’s blood coming into contact with open cuts on another person (e.g. contact sports)
- through unprotected sex (if blood or open wounds are present)
Hep C usually has no symptoms however some people may experience mild flu-like symptoms, dark urine or a yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice) in the first few weeks.
Sometimes people with hep C develop fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain on the right side, fever and joint pain. These symptoms often don’t appear until many years after being infected, by which then the infection has become chronic hep C.
It is recommended that people with hep C get lots of rest, have a balanced diet, limit their alcohol intake, and do regular exercise.
Effective treatment which can cure hep C in more than 95% cases is now available in Australia. Direct-acting antiviral (DAA) therapy, a new single pill treatment taken over 12 weeks, is available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Released 1 August 2017, this treatment has been shown to substantially reduce the risk of liver cancer and liver failure, and improve survival rates. Your doctor can provide you with more information about treatment options.
Risks if not treated
About 25% of people with hep C will clear the virus (recover) over time and 75% of people will develop chronic hep C. If left untreated, chronic hep C over many years can cause cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver. In some cases, this may then develop into liver cancer.
- Only use sterile needles and syringes for injecting drugs and never share needles or other drug injecting equipment.
- Only get tattoos or piercing from licensed, trained professionals, and be cautious getting them done overseas.
- Don’t share toothbrushes or razors.
- Use condoms during sex (oral, anal, vaginal or when sharing sex toys).
- Get vaccinated for hep A and hep B to provide the liver with protection against these hepatitis strains.
Sterile needles and syringes are available from your local needle and syringe program (NSP), and some pharmacies. NSPs are anonymous, free and confidential services, and there are many available in each state – click on the links below to find out more.
- Australian Capital Territory
- New South Wales
- Northern Territory
- South Australia
- Western Australia
Unlike hep A and hep B, there is currently no vaccination for hep C.
If you have hep C it is your responsibility to let people who may have been exposed (e.g. people you may have had blood-to-blood contact with) know so that they can be tested and treated if needed. Your doctor will provide you with specific advice.