What is hepatitis C? Symptoms & treatment explained

You may think that you can only get hepatitis C through sharing dirty needles, but it can also be passed on through unprotected sex. Here’s what you need to know about this contagious STI.

dirty needle

Hep C is most commonly caught through dirty needles but you can get it through sex too.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C virus — aka Hep C or HCV – is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver, ultimately leading to liver failure. It’s mostly spread through sharing dirty needles, getting a tattoo or piercing from a dubious place, and receiving medical or dental treatment abroad where unsterilised equipment may have been used. But – although not so common – it can also be passed on through unprotected vaginal, anal and oral sex.

You can also get it from sharing a toothbrush or razor with an infected person.

What are the warning signs of hepatitis C?

Many people who get hepatitis C have no symptoms at all. If you do develop symptoms, they can take months or even years to appear, so many sufferers have no idea they’ve got it.

Hepatitis C symptoms

Initially, there aren’t any obvious symptoms. When they occur, they’re easy to ignore and pass off as something else, but like hepatitis B, infection can go through two stages: acute and chronic.

Hepatitis C symptoms in the acute stage include a flu-like illness, with nausea, vomiting, tiredness, lack of interest in food, weight loss, aching muscles and joints, and depression. One in four people infected with hepatitis C will fight off the infection and be free of the virus.

The remaining three out of the four people will develop chronic hepatitis. Further symptoms may include jaundice (yellowing of the skin), darker urine and lighter coloured poo.

Even when the infection is in a chronic phase, in the majority of cases few symptoms will occur and the ongoing liver disease often goes under the radar.

Hepatitis C diagnosis

A blood test will tell you if you’ve caught hepatitis C, so you’ll need to see your doctor (GP), or go to your nearest GUM clinic. As there’s also a high risk of passing it on it’s essential to inform partners so they can get themselves checked out too.

Hepatitis C treatment

If your blood test reveals you have chronic hepatitis but there’s no sign of liver disease, no treatment may be necessary. However, if you do have some liver damage, hepatitis C treatment involves a combination of medicines that fight the viral infection.

Is hepatitis C curable?

The good news is that modern hepatitis C treatment means most sufferers can be cured – although you’ll need to have regular check ups with your GP.

What happens if hepatitis C is left untreated?

It’s not easy knowing you have hepatitis C – you may feel guilty, angry or upset about catching something without it being obvious. But while it’s easy to ignore something that’s symptomless, the longer you leave it the worse it is for your liver. In worse case scenarios, this could mean liver cancer – but we’re talking 20 or so years for this to develop.

During childbirth, a baby can contract hepatitis C if the mother is infected.

How to prevent hepatitis C infection

Not sharing drug-injecting equipment, having dodgy tattoos or sharing razors and toothbrushes with anyone reduces the risk. As does using a condom or dental dam every time you have sex.

The best way to protect yourself from hepatitis C (in fact any type of STI) is to limit the number of sexual partners you have and try to ask them about their sexual history. The more partners they’ve had, the higher the risk of catching the virus. Of course they could lie, but at least you’ve taken steps to protect yourself.

How soon can I have sex after hepatitis C treatment?

As there’s a high risk of passing the virus on it’s essential you finish your medication – if you’ve been prescribed any – and get the all clear from your doctor before you have sex again.

Photo of dirty needle by Shutterstock

Other help with STIs

Questions about hepatitis C symptoms or treatment? Let us know on our discussion boards.

Next Steps

  • Are you Getting Some? Get Tested! Search for a sexual health clinic near you
  • Brook provides free sexual health and wellbeing services for young people in the UK. Brook's services include local clinics and online digital sex and relationships tool.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


hepatitis| STIs

By Nicola Scott

Updated on 29-Sep-2015