What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a virus that makes your liver sick. Drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, some chemicals and some other viruses can also make the liver sick.
Your liver is very important for your health. When the liver is hurt or damaged it may not work very well and can make you very sick.
Hepatitis C is sometimes called “hep C”.
How do I get hepatitis C?
You can get hepatitis C if the blood of a person with hepatitis C virus gets into your bloodstream. Even if the blood drops are too small to see, you can catch hepatitis C.
High risk activities
- sharing needles, syringes and teaspoons to inject drugs is the most common way people get hepatitis C
- unsterile tattooing, body piercing or ceremony
- procedures where the skin is pierced with unsterile medical, dental or acupuncture needles
Low risk activities
- a mother with hepatitis C can give it to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth
- sharing toothbrushes and razors
- accidental needlestick injury to health care workers
You cannot get hepatitis C from:
- sharing toilets or showers
- sweat or washing clothes of someone with hepatitis C
- sharing cutlery, plates or cups and glasses
- eating food cooked by someone with hepatitis C
- sneezing, coughing, kissing or hugging
- swimming pools
- animal or insect bites (e.g. mosquitos)
Vaccinations, blood transfusions and medical and dental procedures are safe in Australia when all rules and regulations are followed.
How do I know if I have hepatitis C?
Most people don’t look or feel sick. The most common symptom is nausea. The only way to know for sure is to get a blood test.
When should I get tested?
Ask your doctor for a test if:
- you ever injected drugs, even if it was only once or a long time ago. (Drugs also include steroids for the gym)
- you have ever been in prison in any country
- you had an organ transplant or blood transfusion in Australia before 1990 or in any other country before they began testing for hepatitis C
- you have any tattoos or skin piercings
- you come from a country with high numbers of people with hepatitis C like Africa, the Middle East (particularly Egypt), the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, and South Asia
- your mother has hepatitis C
- you are a man, have HIV and have sex with men
- your sexual partner has hepatitis C
What does hepatitis C virus do to my body?
Hepatitis C virus gets into the liver cells and makes more viruses inside them. The body fights the virus in the liver cells which can hurt the liver. Sometimes your body will fight off all the virus by itself. This can happen within six months of you getting the virus.
Most people’s body cannot fight off all the virus. Over many years, the liver gets very damaged with lots of scarring. This is called ‘cirrhosis’ and can lead to liver cancer and liver failure.
Can hepatitis C be treated or cured?
Yes. Your doctor can give you medicine to cure hepatitis C.
Do I have to tell anyone if I have hepatitis C?
- By law you must tell these people:
- if you give blood at a blood bank
- if you give a body organ (e.g. kidney) or other body fluid (e.g. sperm)
- some insurance companies ask you to tell them if you have hepatitis C or other illnesses. If you do not tell them, they may not pay when you make a claim
- if you want to join the Australian Defence Force (ADF), you will have to tell them.
- If you are a health care worker who does medical procedures where you cannot see your hands (such as a surgeon or dentist), you must tell your employer or supervisor and get advice from a specialist doctor.
You do not have to tell your:
- workmates or classmates
Your doctor cannot tell your family.
How can I avoid getting hepatitis C?
- do not share needles, syringes or teaspoons to inject drugs
- choose tattoo and piercing studios carefully. Use licensed professionals. Make sure they use a new needle and ink for every customer
- always use condoms if you have more than one sexual partner, especially if you are a man who has sex with men
- avoid blood or blood products in countries that don’t test blood donations
- don’t share toothbrushes or razors
- if you are a health care worker, always follow standard precautions
Even if you had hepatitis C in the past and took medicine to cure it, you can still get hepatitis C again.
Where can I get help and advice?
There are many hepatitis C groups in Australia to give you help, advice and support.