By Jennifer Acosta Scott
Medically Reviewed by Robert Jasmer, MD
March 08, 2018
The hepatitis C virus can cause an infection that, if left untreated, may result in liver cancer, liver damage such as cirrhosis, and other complications. But despite the seriousness of the virus, many people are confused about who’s at risk for it and how it can spread from one person to another.
For example, an estimated 3.5 million people have hepatitis C, but the majority of them may not be aware that they’re carrying the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is, in part, because most newly infected people won’t develop any symptoms: The CDC says that only about 20 to 30 percent of them experience signs like fatigue, stomach pain, or a loss of appetite — many of which are mild and unlikely to send people to the doctor’s office.
And although as many 25 percent of people who catch the virus will naturally rid their bodies of the infection, the vast majority will go on to develop chronic hepatitis C, a long-term condition that, without treatment, can last a lifetime, according to the CDC.
Unfortunately, many people aren’t being screened for the virus — including the baby boomer generation, an especially at-risk group. The CDC estimates that approximately 75 percent of Americans who have chronic hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965; many of them could have been infected with the virus through a blood transfusion or organ transplant that was done before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992. Because baby boomers are five times more likely than other adults to have hepatitis C, the CDC recommends that everyone in this age group be tested for the virus at least once.
Thanks to modern scientific advances, doctors have learned a lot about hepatitis C over the past few decades. Now there are treatments available that can cure an estimated 90 percent of people who have the infection in eight to 12 weeks, according to the CDC. “Hepatitis C research has been around long enough that we have a good, solid grip over what’s happening with this illness,” says Cristina Strahotin, MD, a gastroenterologist with Allegheny Health Network in Pittsburgh.
But despite these new treatment options, there are still a number of myths and misunderstandings that can prevent people from being tested or screened for the virus. Don’t let this misinformation stand between you and a diagnosis. Here are seven myths about hepatitis C that everyone should know:
- Myth: If You Have Hepatitis C, You’ll Know It Right Away
Only a small percentage of people with hepatitis C will develop signs and symptoms soon after being infected. And the symptoms that do develop can be vague or nonspecific — think: fever, fatigue, vomiting, dark urine, and abdominal discomfort, according to the CDC.
Typically, the virus is discovered years after the original infection occurred — some people learn of it only after being screened for hepatitis C or after they develop serious health issues like cirrhosis (a hardening of the liver), liver cancer, or kidney problems.
“Hepatitis C is a symptomless disease for the most part, until it causes enough damage to become symptomatic,” Dr. Strahotin explains.
- Myth: There’s No Effective Treatment for Hepatitis C
In the past, not everyone responded successfully to hepatitis C treatment. But for the most part, that’s all changed. Currently, there are many effective antiviral medications on the market, and the CDC estimates that about 90 percent of people who have the virus can be cured in eight to 12 weeks. More good news: Many of these medicines also cause fewer side effects than the older ones did.
It’s important for people who’ve tested positive for hepatitis C to see a doctor and start treatment; they may also want to be tested for chronic liver disease.
- Myth: There’s a Vaccine for Hepatitis C
There’s currently no vaccine that can prevent hepatitis C. There are, however, vaccines available for other types of hepatitis infections, including hepatitis A and B. If do you have hepatitis C, experts recommend getting tested and vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, since those illnesses can further increase your chances of getting sick.
Today, the most common way to prevent hepatitis C is to avoid sharing injection drug equipment with other people, according to the CDC. The virus can also be spread by sharing personal items like razors or toothbrushes, which can contain contaminated blood, or by getting an unregulated tattoo. Keep in mind, also, that the virus can be cured with the right treatment.
- Myth: Hepatitis C Is Primarily Spread Through Sex
While it’s possible to get hepatitis C by having unprotected sex with an infected individual, the CDC points out that this risk is thought to be low. That’s because the virus is primarily transmitted not through sex, but through infected blood or bodily fluids that contain infected blood.
That said, some behaviors and circumstances can increase your risk of getting the infection (or, if you have hepatitis C, of passing the virus on to someone else). These include: having a sexually transmitted infection, having multiple sex partners, or taking part in sex that causes bleeding, like anal sex.
If a person has hepatitis C and is in a monogamous relationship, he or she is unlikely to pass the infection to their partner. Still, Strahotin advises couples in this situation to use common-sense precautions when having sex, like avoiding sex during menstruation or when either partner has genital sores.
- Myth: Hepatitis C Can Spread Through Casual Contact
You can’t contact hepatitis C from another person by hugging, kissing, or touching them, says the CDC. The virus also isn’t spread through sneezing or coughing, or by sharing food, utensils, or glasses.
Instead, the virus is transmitted through the blood. Today, people are most likely to get hepatitis C by sharing needles or other infection equipment.
Even if you live with a person who has hepatitis C, it’s unlikely for the virus to spread within the household, says the CDC. That said, it makes sense to take some precautions. If your partner has hepatitis C, for example, don’t use their razors, toothbrushes, or nail clippers, because these items could have trace amounts of blood on them. If you’re cleaning up spilled blood (even dried blood), the CDC recommends using a dilution of one part household bleach to 10 parts water. Keep in mind that the hepatitis C virus can survive at room temperature on surfaces such as countertops for up to three weeks, the CDC says.
- Myth: Hepatitis C Will Go Away on Its Own
A small percentage — about 15 to 25 percent — of people who get infected with hepatitis C are able to clear the virus from their bodies without treatment, according to the CDC. But for everyone else, hepatitis C becomes a chronic disease that, without treatment, can lead to serious health problems.
The CDC estimates that 60 to 70 percent of people with chronic hepatitis C will develop chronic liver disease, 5 to 20 percent will eventually develop cirrhosis, and 1 to 5 percent will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer. Currently, about 19,000 people die annually from hepatitis C–related liver disease.
- Myth: Hepatitis C Only Affects the Liver
Although hepatitis C primarily attacks the liver, the virus can also damage other parts of the body. For example, some people will develop hepatitis C-related rheumatic diseases, or conditions that affect muscles and joints, even before they know they’ve contracted the virus, according to the American College of Rheumatology. Other people with chronic hepatitis C can develop conditions like diabetes, fatigue, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, skin problems, and more.