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Hepatitis C Information

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  1. Key Facts
  2. How is Hepatitis C spread
  3. Diagnosis
  4. Testing
  5. Prevention

Key facts
Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis C virus.  It is among the most common viruses that infect the liver. People can get Hepatitis C when blood of a person carrying the virus gets into their bloodstream.  Once inside, it infects the liver and causes damage to this very important organ.  The more damage there is, the harder it is for the liver to do its job and people can become very sick.  The disease can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong condition that can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.

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How is Hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C is transmitted when the blood of someone carrying the virus gets into the bloodstream of an uninfected person.

The most common ways a person can get infected with the Hepatitis C virus are through:

  • Using needles and equipment that have already been used by someone else for preparing, injecting, inhaling or snorting a drug.
  • Receiving a blood transfusion in Canada prior to 1992, before blood was effectively and routinely screened for hepatitis C.
  • Receiving a blood transfusion in a country where procedures for screening blood are not effective or routine.

Hepatitis C is spread when blood carrying the virus gets into the bloodstream of another person. This usually happens through breaks in the skin or breaks in the lining of the nose and mouth. Hepatitis C is a strong virus and can live outside of the body for many days. This means that dried blood can also pass the virus.

These are some of the ways Hepatitis C can get inside the body:

  • Using drug equipment that has been used by someone else, such as needles, syringes, filters, cookers, acidifiers, alcohol swabs, tourniquets, water, pipes for smoking crack or crystal meth, and straws for snorting.
  • Getting a blood transfusion or an organ transplant that has not been screened for Hepatitis C. In Canada, the screening of donated blood and organs for Hepatitis C started in 1990. In some other countries, blood wasn’t screened for Hepatitis C until more recently.
  • Re-using tools for activities that break the skin, such as tattooing, body piercing, acupuncture and electrolysis. In tattooing, reusing needles as well as ink and ink pots can spread Hepatitis C.
  • Re-using medical equipment that should only be used once, such as needles for vaccines. Medical equipment that has been used with other people and not cleaned properly before being used again can also spread Hepatitis C.
  • Sharing or borrowing personal items that might have blood on them, such as razors, nail clippers and toothbrushes.
  • During pregnancy or childbirth. A woman who has Hepatitis C can pass the virus to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth.
  • Having unprotected sex where blood could be present. For example, during anal sex, rough sex, sex during a woman’s period or when one person has open sores.

Hepatitis C is not spread through breast milk, consuming food, drinking water or by casual contact with an infected person.

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Many people who have Hepatitis C in Canada don’t know it.

Most people do not show any signs or symptoms until many years after getting Hepatitis C.

The incubation period for Hepatitis C is 2 weeks to 6 months.  Hepatitis C infection usually produces no signs or symptoms during its earliest stages. Following initial infection, approximately 80% of people do not exhibit any symptoms.   

If and when people do have symptoms, they're generally mild and flu-like and may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Nausea, vomiting, or poor appetite
  • Muscle and joint pains
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Tenderness in the area of the liver

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Early diagnosis can prevent health problems that may result from infection and prevent transmission to family members and other close contacts.
The only way to really know is to get tested.

If you think someone else’s blood could have made its way into your body—even one time—or you feel unwell, visit your doctor or a health centre to talk about getting tested.

It takes two tests to know if you have Hepatitis C.

Unlike some other viruses, there are two separate blood tests for Hepatitis C:

The first test: Hepatitis C antibody testing is used to see if a person has ever come in contact with Hepatitis C. When Hepatitis C first enters the bloodstream, the immune system in the body produces antibodies against the virus. The Hepatitis C antibody test looks for Hepatitis C antibodies in the blood. A negative test result means that a person has never come in contact with Hepatitis C.

A positive test result means that a person came in contact with Hepatitis C at some point, however antibodies stay in the body even when someone clears the virus. Follow-up testing is important; the second test shows if the virus is still in the body.

The second test: Virus testing (called a PCR test, a viral load test or an RNA test) checks for active Hepatitis C infection. A negative virus test result means that a person does not have Hepatitis C. A positive test result means that a person has Hepatitis C.

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There is no vaccine for hepatitis C  but the risk of infection can be reduced by avoiding:

  • unnecessary and unsafe injections
  • unsafe blood products
  • unsafe sharps waste collection and disposal
  • use of illicit drugs and sharing of injection equipment
  • unprotected sex with hepatitis C-infected people
  • sharing of sharp personal items that may be contaminated with infected blood
  • tattoos, piercings and acupuncture performed with contaminated equipment.

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