Hepatitis C

What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C causes inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C is an important cause of chronic liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

  • The majority of people (more than 90%) show no signs or symptoms of initial infection
  • The most common symptoms are loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort, nausea and vomiting and jaundice.
  • About 60%-85% of cases develop chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infection
  • 10%-20% of those with chronic infection eventually develop cirrhosis and a smaller number develop cancer of the liver.

HPSC leaflet available: You have hepatitis C: What you need to know

What is the incubation period for hepatitis C?
The incubation period (time from infection to onset of symptoms) is 2 weeks to 6 months, the average being 6-9 weeks.

How is hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C is spread when blood or body fluids from an infected person enter the body of a susceptible person. This occurs in a variety of ways, including the sharing of needles and other drug paraphernalia by people who inject drugs, receipt of contaminated blood and blood products, and injury from a needle or sharp instrument contaminated with blood from an infected person. Less common routes of transmission include transmission from an infected mother to her baby around the time of birth and through sexual contact with an infected person.

Where is hepatitis C a problem?
The World Health Organization estimates that about 180 million people, 3% of the world's population, are infected with hepatitis C virus. The prevalence of hepatitis C in some countries in Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, South-East Asia and the Western Pacific (when prevalence data are available) is high compared to some countries in North America and Europe. Ireland is considered a low prevalence country.

How is an infection diagnosed?
Hepatitis C is diagnosed by testing the patient's blood for the presence of specific anti-viral antibodies or by nucleic acid testing.

Can hepatitis C be treated?
Treatment for patients with chronic hepatitis C infection is successful at clearing the virus from the blood of many of those who are treated. However, not everybody is suitable for treatment or can tolerate it.

How can hepatitis C be prevented?
Preventive measures for hepatitis C include:

  • Screening of blood donors for hepatitis C antibodies, and virus inactivation of plasma derived products
  • Use of standard precautions when handling human blood and body fluids and in situations where needles and other skin piercing equipment are used
  • Use of safe sex practices
  • Needle exchange programmes for injecting drug users

Is hepatitis C a notifiable disease?
Hepatitis C is a notifiable disease and cases should be notified to the Medical Officer of Health.

Is there a vaccine available for hepatitis C?
Currently there is no vaccine available for hepatitis C.

Last reviewed: 23rd January 2008