What is hepatitis C?
It is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus.
What are the symptoms?
When people are first infected with hepatitis C, some have symptoms such as nausea (feeling like they might throw up) and jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), but most have no symptoms. Sometimes the body can clear the virus on its own, but usually the virus stays in the liver.
People who have the virus in their liver for more than 6 months are known as hepatitis C carriers. Most carriers live for many years without major health problems, but some develop severe liver damage (cirrhosis) and cancer of the liver. These complications usually happen many years after the person first gets infected with hepatitis C.
How do children get hepatitis C?
Most children get it from their mothers at birth.
Before 1991, children sometimes got hepatitis C from blood transfusions. This almost never happens now. Hepatitis C can also be spread from using intravenous drugs (drugs injected with a needle) or from tattoos done with needles and paints that have not been properly sterilized (cleaned). Very rarely, hepatitis C can come from having sex with a person who has the infection.
I am pregnant. Should I be tested for hepatitis C?
There is a blood test for hepatitis C. Doctors usually only test women who are at risk – especially women who have used intravenous drugs. You should ask to be tested if you have ever used intravenous drugs – even just once.
Women with hepatitis C may need antiviral drugs (medicines for treating viral infections) after the baby is born. Your baby will also need to be tested to see if he has hepatitis C.
There is no need to do a caesarian section just because you have hepatitis C.
How can I protect my baby from getting hepatitis C?
If you have hepatitis C, there is approximately 1 in 20 chance that you will pass it to your baby. The risk is higher if you also have HIV and are not being treated. To date, there is no way to prevent the spread of hepatitis C to the baby.
Can I breastfeed if I have hepatitis C?
Although we do not think hepatitis C is spread by breast milk, we cannot be 100% certain. If you are infected, you should discuss breastfeeding with your doctor. Most doctors think women with hepatitis C should breastfeed, unless they also have HIV.
What happens if my child has hepatitis C?
Approximately 1 in 4 children with hepatitis C clear the virus on their own. The others become carriers. Even though the virus stays in the liver of children who are carriers, most stay healthy.
Children who are hepatitis C carriers need to see their doctors regularly and have blood tests. Most do not need any medicine, but some will be treated with antiviral drugs to prevent severe liver damage (cirrhosis) or cancer of the liver.
More information from the CPS:
- Vertical transmission of the hepatitis C virus: Current knowledge and issues, a statement of the Canadian Paediatric Society
Reviewed by the following CPS Committees:
Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee
Last updated: August 2008