Hepatitis C can be either acute or chronic. In the latter case, the hepatitis C virus (HCV) stays in the body and may lead to infections that can last over the course of a lifetime.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 75 and 85 percent of people who contract HCV develop chronic hepatitis.

The good news is that HCV is more treatable now than ever before, which explains its high cure rate. In fact, once you’re considered cured, the average risk of recurrence is less than one percent.

Although treatments are better, it’s still possible to contract a new infection in the future. Whether you have a history of hep C or not, it’s important to take precautions to prevent HCV.

Hepatitis C is treated with antiviral medications called protease inhibitor drugs. Taken orally, these medications have come a long way in terms of efficacy and ease of use.

Hepatitis C drugs work by preventing HCV from further replicating in the body. Over time, the virus will then run itself out so the infection may subsequently clear up.

The average course of treatment for hepatitis C is an oral antiviral drug taken for at least 8 to 12 weeks. Sometimes treatment can go as long as 6 months. After this point, your doctor will run periodic tests to confirm that the HCV is completely gone.

For your doctor to consider you “cured” of hepatitis C, you must achieve an immunological state known as sustained virologic response (SVR). This refers to the amount of HCV in your system.

The virus needs to reach low enough levels that tests can’t detect it in your blood for 12 weeks after you complete your treatment. When this happens, you’re considered to be in SVR, or are cured.

Once your doctor determines you’ve reached SVR, they will continue to monitor your blood for at least a year. This is done to ensure that the infection hasn’t returned. Regular blood tests can also check for possible liver damage, too.

Approximately 99 percent of people who achieve SVR are cured of hepatitis C for life. The risk of hepatitis C returning after SVR is extremely rare. Also, once you reach SVR, you aren’t at risk of passing HCV on to others.

In some cases, your hepatitis C symptoms may flare up again before you reach SVR. But this isn’t considered a recurrence because the infection isn’t cured to begin with. A more likely explanation for recurrence is a new infection altogether.

Even if you’re cured, or have entered SVR from previous hepatitis C treatment, this doesn’t mean you’re immune to new infections in the future. Antivirals help get rid of existing HCV infections only. Unlike some other types of viruses, having hepatitis C in the past doesn’t mean you’re then immune to HCV for the rest of your life.

You may be at an increased risk of contracting HCV if you:

  • were born between 1945 and 1965
  • received a blood transfusion or an organ transplant before 1992
  • were born to a mother with hepatitis C
  • have HIV
  • work in a healthcare setting where you may be exposed to others’ blood
  • have a history of imprisonment
  • have used, or are currently using, illicit drugs

Currently, there’s no vaccine available for hepatitis C. The only way you can avoid contracting HCV is through preventive measures.

You can help prevent new hepatitis C infections by avoiding the following:

  • having sex without a condom or other barrier method
  • sharing needles and syringes
  • using injected drugs
  • getting homemade tattoos or piercings
  • sharing razors and toothbrushes
  • needlestick injuries at doctor’s offices and hospitals

HCV can cause some symptoms. But most cases of hepatitis C aren’t detectable until the infection reaches an advanced stage and starts affecting the liver.

It can take 4 to 10 weeks for an HCV antibody test to become positive after your initial exposure. This means you could unknowingly transmit HCV to others before you’re aware of your own infection.

Keep in mind that SVR doesn’t protect you from any liver damage you sustain as a result of your initial HCV infection. If you have any underlying cirrhosis (liver scarring), your doctor may need to monitor your liver function for further signs of disease. A liver transplant won’t prevent future infections, either.

Hepatitis C treatments that researchers have developed over the last decade are much more effective than ever before. Most people can be cured of their condition within several months. Also, the risk of recurrence after you reach SVR is rare.

But it’s still possible to contract a new HCV infection in the future. This is why it’s important to help reduce your risk for contracting the virus. If you have any of the risk factors above, talk to your doctor about what you can do to help prevent hepatitis C in your future.