Hepatitis C can cause serious damage to the liver over time, if not treated. Hepatitis C can be easily cured with treatment in majority of people.
Key things to know
Hepatitis C often doesn’t have any noticeable symptoms. It is important to get tested if you think you might have been at risk of hepatitis C.
The risk of hepatitis C is increased in people who:
- inject drugs and share injecting equipment,
- had a blood transfusion prior to 1991,
- have sex that increases their potential to be exposed to blood, such as anal sex.
If you think you have been at risk of hepatitis C recently or in the past, the first step is getting a hepatitis C test. You can search for hepatitis C testing in your local area using our service finder.
If you’re not sure if you have been at risk, you can read more about hepatitis C transmission or get in touch with us for advice and support.
What is hepatitis?
There are several different kinds of hepatitis, which can be caused by either viral infections or alcohol use.
Some types of hepatitis pass without causing damage to the liver, while other types can last for many years, causing scarring of the liver and increasing the risk of liver cancer.
Hepatitis that is caused by viral infections is called viral hepatitis. The three most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, B and C.
- Hepatitis A is a type of viral hepatitis that is passed on through contaminated food and water or during sex. Click here to find out more about hepatitis A.
- Hepatitis B is a type of viral hepatitis that is passed on through blood and bodily fluids. Click here to find out more about hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C is a blood borne virus that affects the liver. Hepatitis C is often described as acute, meaning a new infection, or chronic, meaning long-term infection.
In a small proportion of people that get hepatitis C, the virus clears on its own without treatment. In majority of people, however, hepatitis C can progress to a more severe stage and cause damage to the liver. These people will need treatment to clear the virus.
Hepatitis C may not have any symptoms in early stages, meaning some people do not get diagnosed until their liver has been significantly damaged. It is important to get tested if you think you might have been exposed or are at risk of hepatitis C.
Unlike hepatitis A and hepatitis B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C symptoms
Symptoms of hepatitis C can vary and can often be mistaken for other conditions.
Common hepatitis C symptoms include:
- memory loss,
- low mood,
- muscle and joint pain,
- yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice).
Even if you do not experience any symptoms of hepatitis C, the virus will still cause damage to the liver. To learn more about the symptoms of hepatitis C, check out The Hepatitis C Trust’s guide to symptoms.
Transmission of hepatitis C
You can get hepatitis C through blood to blood contact. This is when the blood of a person who has hepatitis C gets into your bloodstream. In Scotland, hepatitis C is most commonly passed on through sharing needles or other injecting equipment, such as syringes, filter spoons or tourniquets.
Unlike HIV, hepatitis C can live outside the body for up to 3 weeks and can be easily passed on through contact with even a small amount of blood. For this reason, hepatitis C is much more infectious than HIV.
The transmission of hepatitis C from a birthing parent to their baby is uncommon. However, the risks are higher if the parent has HIV, especially if they also have a high hepatitis C viral load.
Click here to read more about the risk factors for hepatitis C transmission.
Testing for hepatitis C
Getting a hepatitis C test is quick, easy and confidential. Hepatitis C tests are provided to anyone free of charge on the NHS via local GP surgeries, drug services, genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics or sexual health clinics.
There are two types of test for hepatitis C. Dried blood tests are available from Waverley Care in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and in some GP surgeries. You can find hepatitis C testing in your local area by using our service finder.
During a dried blood spot test, a small amount of blood is taken from your finger and blotted on a filter paper. This is then sent to a laboratory where the blood is screened for hepatitis C. For this type of test, you will usually receive results in 2-3 weeks.
If you have a ‘positive’ result on a dry blood spot test, you will be asked to take a second blood test to confirm the results. This is because some tests may not give a reliable result if the test is taken a long time after infection.
If the second test is also positive, you will be referred to a specialist hepatitis C clinic.
During a blood test, a blood sample is taken from a vein in your arm. It is usually taken from the inside of the elbow or wrist where the veins are closest to the surface of your skin.
When the blood sample is taken, it is sent to a laboratory where it will be screened for hepatitis C. The results are then sent back to where you were tested. This might be your GP, hospital or sexual health clinic.
You will sometimes receive the results on the same day, however it can take up to a few weeks. When you are getting a blood test, ask your doctor or nurse when you can expect the results.
It is possible to get hepatitis C again, even if the virus has been cured with medication or has resolved without treatment previously. In Scotland, reinfection is common in people who inject drugs and men who have sex with men. It is important for those most at risk to get tested for hepatitis C on a regular basis to prevent reinfection.
Looking for advice?
If you are living with, or at risk of, hepatitis C and have questions about a new diagnosis, testing or treatment, we can offer support and advice. Get in touch with us by filling out our contact form.