What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver. It's caused by a virus. Sometimes it's a short-term (acute) infection that goes away without treatment. But more often, it becomes a long-term (chronic) infection. It can damage the liver and lead to serious disease. Treatment can usually cure hepatitis C.
How is it diagnosed during pregnancy?
A blood test for hepatitis C is usually done during pregnancy. First, a hepatitis C (HCV) antibody test is done. This shows whether you've been exposed to this virus. If the test is positive (which means you have been exposed), then an HCV RNA blood test is done. This test shows if you're now infected with the hepatitis C virus.
You may also be tested for other infections. These include HIV, hepatitis B, chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea.
If you have hepatitis C, your baby will need to be tested but not during the pregnancy. Testing is usually done when a baby is at least 18 months old. But it may be done sooner.
How is it spread?
Hepatitis C is spread by contact with an infected person's blood. In the United States, most people get it by sharing needles and other equipment used to inject or snort illegal drugs.
Less often, it's spread by:
- Getting a tattoo or a piercing with a needle that wasn't cleaned properly.
- Sharing personal items, such as razors, toothbrushes, towels, or nail clippers, with an infected person.
- Having sex with someone who's infected.
- Getting injured with a needle that has infected blood on it. This sometimes happens to health care workers.
- Having had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992. (Since 1992, all donated blood and organs in the U.S. are screened for hepatitis C.)
If someone has hepatitis C during pregnancy, they might spread it to their baby before or during delivery.
It isn't spread through breast milk, sharing food or drink, or casual contact like hugging.
What are the symptoms?
Most people who have hepatitis C don't have symptoms. If there are symptoms, they may include fatigue, pain in the belly and joints, itchy skin, sore muscles, and dark urine. There may also be jaundice. This is a condition in which the skin and the whites of the eyes look yellow.
How is hepatitis C treated?
Hepatitis C is treated with antiviral medicines. They can usually cure the infection and help prevent liver damage.
These medicines usually aren't given during pregnancy. That's because it's not known if they're safe for the baby. You will probably be treated after breastfeeding is done (or after delivery if you don't breastfeed). It's safe to breastfeed while you have hepatitis C unless your nipples are cracked or bleeding.
How can you care for yourself at home?
- Go to all your prenatal visits. Your doctor will do tests to make sure that you are healthy and that your baby is growing properly.
- Be sure that all doctors and other health professionals who treat you or your baby during labor, delivery, and recovery know that you have hepatitis C. This will help them take steps to protect your baby.
- Make sure your doctor knows all of the medicines you take. Some medicines, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), can make liver problems worse. Do not take any new medicines unless your doctor tells you to. This includes over-the-counter medicines.
- Stay away from harmful substances. If you need help quitting, tell your doctor. Treatment can help keep you and your baby healthy.
- Do not drink alcohol. Alcohol can damage your liver and cause problems in your baby.
- Avoid illegal drugs and marijuana. And don't use tobacco or vape.
- If you haven't already, get the vaccines to protect yourself from hepatitis A and hepatitis B. These vaccines are safe during pregnancy.
- Stay away from people who have colds and other infections.
- Try to avoid spreading the hepatitis C virus to others.
- Tell the people you live with or have sex with that you have hepatitis C.
- Don't share personal items, such as razors, towels, toothbrushes, or nail clippers.
- Use a condom every time you have sex.
- Keep any cuts, scrapes, or blisters covered.
- If you use drugs, don't share supplies used to snort or inject drugs, like needles, syringes, or straws. Sharing supplies is the main way the virus is spread.