What is hep C?
Hep C is a liver illness caused by the hepatitis C virus. Most people do not clear the virus (75%) and, unless cured, have the illness for life. Hep C can cause liver problems. Over a long period of time some people may develop cirrhosis (scarring of liver) or liver cancer. Although people usually talk about hep C as if it were a single virus, there are six different main genotypes. All hep C genotypes affect the liver in the same way. Most people in Australia have hep C genotypes 1 and 3.
Will hep C make me sick?
Hep C is a very slow acting virus, and you may not feel unwell for many years. The first six to twelve months of infection is called the ‘acute phase’. During this time, the body’s immune system starts fighting the virus. A small number of people may feel unwell and experience flu-like symptoms, but you may not experience any illness at all. In one out of four people (25%), the immune system clears the virus but for most people, unless they are cured, they will have a life-long (also called ‘chronic’) hep C infection.
For more information about symptoms, see symptoms of hep C.
Chronic (long-term) illness
Hep C infection usually involves ongoing liver inflammation. After around 20 years, many people will remain unaffected while others will have liver damage that makes them feel ill. Over a 20 to 40-year period, continuing liver damage may result in cirrhosis (scarring of the liver). Having cirrhosis for a long period of time may lead to liver failure or liver cancer. These serious situations will affect 5 in 100 people.
Chronic hep C outcomes
Things like alcohol intake, age when hep C was caught and current level of liver inflammation may all influence a person’s individual outcome. You need to seek medical advice to find out about your own situation.
Curing chronic hep C
New hep C treatments are safe and very effective. Up to 95% of people can now be cured. Speak to your doctor about treating and curing hep C. For more information about curing hep C, see hep C treatment.
Liver cirrhosis (scarring)
If you have cirrhosis, this means that liver inflammation has led to the build-up of scar tissue in your liver. The scar tissue reduces the blood flow through the liver so that it cannot carry out its work as well as it should.
The following things can increase the chance of developing cirrhosis:
Having an unhealthy lifestyle (such as eating unhealthy food, not getting enough exercise)
Being older than 40 when hep C was first caught
Having hep C for a long time (20-40 years), especially if there is a high level of virus in the blood
Having another viral infection like hep B or HIV as well.
Cirrhosis can make you feel quite ill and increase your risk of liver failure or liver cancer. Reversal of liver cirrhosis is possible (meaning that the damaged liver can become healthy again), depending on how scarred your liver is. Talk to your doctor or specialist about this. The level of liver scarring can be monitored by Fibroscan® and blood tests. Some people might need to have a liver biopsy but this is not common.
Co-infection (having other virus infections besides hep C)
If you have hep C as well as another viral infection such as HIV or hepatitis B, you will be at greater risk of serious long-term illness. It is very important that you keep in good contact with your doctor or specialist if you have either HIV or hep B as well as hep C, so that your health can be checked regularly, and a good health care and treatment plan is worked out for you.
Last review June 2018