What is it?

Hepatitis C is an infection with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). Many people with Hepatitis C have no symptoms, but eventually about 75% of these people go on to develop a chronic condition. It can take years, even decades, for symptoms to appear, so many people are unaware they have a problem.

By the time they become ill and seek help, considerable damage has already been done to the liver. This might have been prevented if the person had been diagnosed earlier.

About 20-30% of people with HCV will naturally clear the virus from their bodies - but in about 75% of cases, the infection will be chronic. In these cases, the immune system has been unable to clear the virus and will remain in the body unless medical treatment is given. Most of these people have intermittent symptoms of fatigue or no symptoms at all, but there may be damage to the liver.

How can I get it?

HCV can be passed on through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral intercourse as well as body to body contact, as the virus is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. One common route is through sharing needles when injecting recreational drugs - nearly 45% of intravenous drug users have contracted it this way. Similarly, it can be caught by having a tattoo or body piercing with equipment that has not been properly sterilised, sharing toothbrushes and razors.

HCV can also be caught from medical treatment in developing countries, blood transfusions before routine screening was introduced or from mother to baby during pregnancy and/ or birth. Sexual transmission is extremely rare in monogamous heterosexual couples, but there is an increased risk of infection for gay men and the HIV positive community.

How do I know if I have it?

There are often no symptoms at first, which is why it is important to get tested regularly if you have ever been at risk. Symptoms, if they occur, can include feeling tired, aching limbs, digestive problems and brain fog.

Hepatitis C testing

You can get a test at Better2Know, either on its own or as part of our Hepatitis Screen or Platinum Screen. A blood sample is needed for the test, and the same sample can also be used for other STI tests you may want to order including all those in our Early Detection Screen.

Results are available the same day that your sample is received in the laboratory. If you test positive, your Better2Know Doctor will be able to help you with the next steps.

How is it treated?

The virus can be treated with prescription drugs. These drugs offer the best chance to clear the virus from the body, and are used together as a combination therapy which has been shown to be effective in 50-85% of cases as some strains or genotypes of the HCV are more likely to respond than others.

Even if the virus is not completely cleared, the treatments can reduce inflammation and scarring of the liver. However, there are new drugs now available that offer increased chances of success.

Many people also find that complementary and lifestyle approaches help deal with symptoms and improve quality of life. People with a chronic HCV infection should be seen by a hospital liver specialist for monitoring and assess suitability for treatment.

Adverse consequences

If left undetected and untreated, you may be at higher risk of contracting HIV and other STDs through unprotected intercourse. It can also cause chronic inflammation of the liver (fibrosis), cirrhosis, and may lead to liver cancer.

If you are pregnant, the risk of transmission to your baby can be minimised by your midwife who will be able to advise you.

About one in five people with chronic condition develops cirrhosis of the liver within 20 years.