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Researchers

Hepatitis C (HCV) is a serious virus infection that over time can cause liver damage and even liver cancer.

Transmission of hepatitis C virus (HCV) occurs through contact with infected blood or body fluids. This virus causes chronic (long-term) infection in more than 85 percent of infected people, often leading to chronic liver disease. Hepatitis C is unrelated to any of the other known hepatitis viruses (A, B, D, and E). About 15 percent of those infected with hepatitis C will recover completely.

Today, the most common way people get infected is by needle-sharing during intravenous drug use. Most new infections occur among intravenous drug users. In addition, an infected pregnant woman can infect her unborn baby. The symptoms of liver damage may not appear for several years. Therefore, it is important for people at high risk of infection to be tested for hepatitis C so they can start treatment as early as possible.

Since 1992, when reliable blood screening procedures became available, the risk of transmission of hepatitis C by blood transfusion has fallen to less than one per million units of transfused blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While early treatment can prevent potentially cancer causing liver damage, most people with acute or chronic hepatitis C have few, if any, symptoms and are not even aware they are infected. If there are symptoms, they may include: dark urine, fatigue, jaundice, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, symptoms of acute hepatitis C, if they appear at all, generally appear 6 to 12 weeks after exposure to the virus.

Even if they don't show symptoms, some people with chronic hepatitis C may develop serious liver disease that is not apparent at first. In the United States, chronic hepatitis C infection is the leading cause of cirrhosis (severe liver disease) and liver cancer, both of which can be fatal.

Treatment includes examination for liver disease and prescription medications. Two medicines are used to treat hepatitis C: interferon and ribavirin. Most health experts advise using both drugs together. The response to treatment varies from person to person.

Source: NIAID