What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus.
It can cause inflammation (swelling) and fibrosis (scarring) of the liver tissue, and sometimes significant liver damage.
Many people do not realise they have been infected with the virus because they may not have any symptoms, or they may have flu-like symptoms that can easily be mistaken for another illness.
You can become infected with hepatitis C if you come into contact with the blood of an infected person (see below). Drug users sharing needles are at particular risk.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. This is because the hepatitis C virus mutates (changes into a different strain) very easily, which makes it hard to create a vaccine, and the virus has different genotypes (genetic variants).
How do you become infected?
Hepatitis C is transmitted by contact with blood of an infected person
The most common way you can become infected is by sharing contaminated needles to inject drugs.
Hepatitis C is a notifiable condition. This means that when the condition is diagnosed, the doctor making the diagnosis must inform the Medcial Officer of Health. Read more about notifying infectious diseases here on the Health Protection Surveillance Centre Website.
How common is it?
About 700-800 new cases are notified people with hepatitis C in Ireland every year. Many people do not know they are infected.
The course of hepatitis C is unpredictable.
About one in five people with hepatitis C will fight the infection and naturally clear it from their bodies within two to six months, experiencing no long-term effects.
Of the rest, some will remain well and never develop liver damage, but many will develop mild to moderate liver damage (with or without symptoms). Alcohol consumption is known to speed up the progression of liver damage. People infected with HIV also show a faster development of liver damage.
In a few people, their liver damage will progress to cirrhosis (severe scarring of the liver) over 20-30 years. If you have cirrhosis, you have a greater risk of developing liver cancer.
Cirrhosis may also lead to liver failure. In this case, a liver transplant may be the only option.
Treatment with interferon and ribavirin can clear the infection in approximately half of those who are infected, but there are significant side effects.
- Health A-Z: hepatitis
- Health A-Z: hepatitis A
- Health A-Z: hepatitis B
- Health Protection Surveillance Centre
- drugs.ie services directory
- HSE drugs/HIV helpline
If you have suffered an injury (needle stick or other sharps injury, sexual exposure, human bites, exposure of broken skin or of mucous membranes) where there is a risk of transmission of blood borne viruses and other infections, further information on how to manage your situation is at: emitoolkit.ie
Your liver is your body’s ‘factory’. It carries out hundreds of jobs that are vital for life, including:
- Storing glycogen (carbohydrate that produces short-term energy)
- Making bile, which helps to digest fats
- Making substances that clot the blood
- Processing and removing any alcohol, toxins and drugs
You only have one liver, but it is very tough. It keeps going when it is badly damaged, and it can continue repairing itself up until it becomes severely damaged.