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Quick Dose: What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. Most people become infected by sharing needles or syringes used for intravenous drug injections at any time in their lives, often even decades ago. The other common mode of transmission is having received contaminated blood products. Any transfusion of blood products before 1990 could transmit hepatitis C since the diagnostic test for it was unavailable prior to that and contaminated blood could not be identified. Transmission of hepatitis C occurs infrequently from mother to child. Sexual transmission is uncommon; however, anal receptive intercourse is clearly a risk factor.

There is no vaccination, but you can protect yourself by never sharing needles or personal care items, practicing safe sex and choosing tattoo parlors carefully.

Once infected, hepatitis C usually remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. For various reasons, people born between 1945 and 1965 (known as baby boomers) are five times more likely to have hepatitis C and make up three-quarters of the population diagnosed with hepatitis C. If you fall in that age range, it is recommended that all individuals have a one-time test for hepatitis C. Be sure to talk to your physician about getting tested.

Laura M. Kulik, MD, hepatologist, Northwestern Medical Group