Hepatitis C | Symptoms & Causes

What causes hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is caused by infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The virus is passed from person to person through contact with blood infected with HCV. Mothers infected with HCV can pass the virus on to their children at birth. While this is the most common way for a child in the United States to become infected with HCV, it is unusual. A mother infected with HCV has about a 5 percent (1 in 20) chance of passing the virus to her child. About a quarter of infants infected with the virus clear it without treatment by the time they reach age 3.

Older children, especially teenagers, can contract HCV through injection drug use. The virus can spread through other forms of contact with potentially infected blood (e.g., needle stick in a health care setting). Tattoos and body piercings appear to be safe as long as they are done with sterile instruments.

What is the liver, and what does it do?

The liver is the second largest organ in the body and it helps the body in many ways:

  • the liver produces proteins that allow blood to clot normally, transport oxygen and support the immune system
  • it produces bile, a substance that helps digest food
  • it stores extra nutrients
  • it helps clean the bloodstream of harmful substances
  • it helps control blood sugar and cholesterol levels

How does hepatitis C affect the liver?

When infected, the liver becomes inflamed, which may cause the healthy, soft tissues in the liver to harden and scar. If not stopped, inflammation and scarring can lead to serious liver diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver or liver tumors. If the damage is severe enough, the liver may not perform all of its functions normally.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

The majority of children with acute or chronic hepatitis C have no symptoms. As they age, the virus can cause ever-greater damage to the liver. In later stages, symptoms of hepatitis C may include:

  • tiredness
  • itchy skin
  • dark urine
  • muscle soreness
  • nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • stomach pain
  • jaundice