Health conditions

Hepatitis C

  • Hepatitis C is passed on when infected blood enters your bloodstream.
  • In Australia, most infections are due to sharing needles and other drug injecting equipment.
  • New treatments can cure 90-95% of people.

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. It can be caused by viruses such as hepatitis A, B, C, D, E and G, alcohol, some chemicals, or drugs.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus. It’s passed on by blood-to-blood contact, when infected blood enters another person’s bloodstream. It is sometimes called ‘hep C’.

It is a different virus to hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

You can’t get hepatitis C from everyday social contact, such as shaking hands, kissing, or sharing a bathroom or toilet, or by donating blood.

The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is by having some blood tests organised by your doctor. The good news is, effective treatments are available, that have little to no side effects, are short in duration (8 to 12 weeks), and can be prescribed by your doctor.

How do you get hepatitis C?

In Australia, most hepatitis C infections result from the sharing of needles and other equipment used for injecting drugs. You can get hepatitis C even if you only share needles or other equipment once.

Other ways that you can get hepatitis C include:

  • A needlestick injury in a health care setting. The risk of contracting hepatitis C from a needle found in a community setting, such as in the park, is very, very low.
  • Getting any body art, such as tattooing or piercing, when the equipment isn’t sterile.
  • Having unprotected sex involving blood or damage to the skin, such as anal sex or unprotected sex with a woman during her period. The risk of infection through penile-vaginal sex is very low.
  • Sharing personal items that can have traces of blood on them, such as razors, toothbrushes and dental floss.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

There is a low risk of an infected mother passing on hepatitis C to her baby either during pregnancy, or at birth. There is almost no risk from breast milk – breastfeeding is safe unless nipples are cracked or bleeding.

Learn more about hepatitis C and breastfeeding.

In Australia, you are very unlikely to get hepatitis C through blood transfusion or an organ transplant.

How do I know if I have hepatitis C?

The only way to find out if you have hepatitis C is by a blood test organised by your doctor. The hepatitis C virus (HCV) antibody test shows if you have ever been infected. It can take 3 to 6 months from the time of infection before this test becomes positive. So if your test result is negative, you will need a repeat test in 3 to 6 months time.

The test can’t show if you have chronic hepatitis C. So if your antibody test result is positive, you will need another test to tell if the virus is still in your blood. The test usually used for this is a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR test).

It is important to know your hepatitis C status. If you think you may be at risk, ask your GP for a test.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Many people don’t have any symptoms at first, or have a minor, flu-like illness. In some cases, your urine becomes dark, and your skin and eyes turn yellow (jaundice). Hepatitis symptoms can disappear within a few weeks but this does not always mean that the infection has also disappeared.

If you have hepatitis symptoms you should see a doctor. When the liver is ‘inflamed’ for more than 6 months, the illness is called long-term or chronic hepatitis.

Symptoms of chronic hepatitis C include:

  • mild to severe tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling unwell and vomiting
  • soreness under the ribs
  • fever
  • joint pain.
How is hepatitis C treated?

New and effective treatments are now available for hepatitis C. These are of much shorter duration and have fewer side-effects. To find out more, speak to your GP, contact HepatitisWA (external site), or visit the Hepatitis Australia (external site) or Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (PBS) (external site) websites.

If you have hepatitis C

You need to work with your doctor to look after yourself. Make sure you have a doctor you are happy with and who has a good understanding of hepatitis C.

Even if you are already infected with hepatitis C, you can still get a different type of the hepatitis C virus. If you have been treated, you can get hepatitis C again. You always need to protect yourself against hepatitis C.

It is important not to pass hepatitis C onto anybody else. You can do this by avoiding blood-to-blood contact, like always using your own injecting equipment.

You need to minimise the risk of getting other liver infections, such as hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Ask your doctor about hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccination.

How can hepatitis C be prevented?

There is no vaccine against hepatitis C.

You can reduce the risk of getting hepatitis C by following this advice:

  • The best way to reduce the risk of getting hepatitis C is not to inject drugs. If you do choose to inject drugs, always use your own new, sterile needles and syringes and sterile water. Also use your own spoon, swabs, filters, and tourniquets.

    You can get clean needles and syringes from most chemists, needle and syringe exchange programs, and at country hospitals after-hours. For information on safer injecting practices, contact Peer Based Harm Reduction WA (external site).
  • Use a condom and/or dam (a thin latex square held over the vaginal or anal area during oral sex), and water-based lubricant if there is a chance of blood-to-blood contact during sex. For example, during anal sex (because the lining of the anus is easily broken), during menstruation and during sexual practices that may involve bleeding or broken skin. You should also take precautions if you have cuts or lesions on or close to the genitals.
  • Before considering any body art (such as tattooing or piercing) make sure the body artist uses only sterilised equipment, and new razors, inks and needles each time.
  • Don’t share personal hygiene items, such as razors, toothbrushes and dental floss.
  • Healthcare workers should always use infection control procedures at work.

Translated information about hepatitis C

Where to get help

  • See your doctor.
  • Call Hepatitis WA Helpline (9328 8538 for metropolitan callers or 1800 800 070 for country callers).
  • Ring healthdirect (external site) on 1800 022 222.
  • Call the Sexual Health Helpline (9227 6178 for metropolitan callers or 1800 198 205 for country callers).

Last reviewed: 05-11-2020
Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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