The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a contagious liver infection that can cause inflammation. About 3.5 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C.

Chronic hepatitis C occurs when the virus stays in your body untreated. Over time, this causes liver damage or liver cancer.

Acute hepatitis C occurs in the first six months after you’ve been infected, although you may not experience any symptoms. Some people can fight off the infection without any long-term health problems.

How Hepatitis C Can Spread

Hepatitis C spreads through blood contact with a person infected with HCV. The most common cause of hepatitis C is from drug users sharing needles with an infected person. The infection also can be passed through unsterilized tattoo needles. Mothers can spread the virus to their babies at birth, but not through breast-feeding.

Although chances are low, the infection can be spread through contact with fresh or dried blood. It can be infectious for up to 16 hours. When cleaning stray blood, wear rubber gloves and use a mixture of one part bleach to 10 parts water.

How Hepatitis C Cannot Spread

Unlike the flu or common cold, hepatitis isn’t airborne. That means it can’t be passed through sneezing, coughing, or sharing your food with someone else. Likewise, you can’t get it through kissing or hugging someone with the virus. But there’s a small risk of infection if you share personal care items that come in contact with infected blood, like a toothbrush or razor.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the risk of infection from sexual contact with an infected person is very low if both partners are monogamous. However, you should use a condom if you and your partner have had multiple sexual relationships or sex with a known infected person. Also, avoid sharing any personal care items that have possibly come in contact with blood.

As far as traveling, you can’t get the virus abroad unless you come into contact with infected blood or receive blood products that contain the virus.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

Many people with hepatitis C don’t know they have it until several months later. Symptoms may not materialize until six months after the infection.

If the disease is left untreated, the following symptoms may develop:

  • jaundice
  • fever
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • dark-colored urine or light-colored stools

If the disease becomes chronic, it can affect the liver and produce the following symptoms:

  • abdominal fluid
  • swelling
  • a star-shape vein pattern on your abdomen
  • itching
  • bruising
  • bleeding

Risk Factors and Prevention

Recreational injectable drug users are at higher risk of catching and spreading hepatitis C if they share needles. Getting a tattoo with improperly cleaned needles can also spread the infection.

Other people who are at greater risk include:

  • those with HIV
  • healthcare workers
  • people who received blood or blood products before 1987
  • people who received a donor organ or hemodialysis for kidney failure

There’s no vaccine for hepatitis C, so the best way to prevent it is avoiding any situations in which you can come into contact with someone’s blood.

For example:

  • Avoid sharing needles and be careful when disposing of used ones.
  • Don’t share your toothbrush, razor, or nail clippers with someone with HCV.
  • Make sure that healthcare professionals wear a new set of gloves before they examine you.
  • Use a condom if you aren’t in a monogamous relationship and have multiple sexual partners.
  • If you’re getting a tattoo, be sure the instruments being used come from a sealed package. This indicates that they’ve been sterilized.

Treatment

Not all hepatitis C patients need treatment. Some just need regular checkups and blood tests to monitor liver function. Others may be prescribed an anti-viral medication for several weeks to rid their body of the virus.

If you think that you have come into contact with HCV-infected blood, visit your doctor immediately to be checked for the possible treatment. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends screening for people at elevated risk and baby boomers, or adults born between 1945 and 1965.