When Your Child Has Hepatitis C (HCV) Infection

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Many things can cause it. One of the causes is infection with a virus called the hepatitis C virus (HCV). In some cases, hepatitis C goes away on its own. But for most people, hepatitis C is a chronic (lifelong) problem. Hepatitis C almost never causes symptoms until later in the disease. Even so, hepatitis C can cause severe liver damage over time. And a child who has it can pass the virus to others.

How Did My Child Get Hepatitis C?

HCV spreads through blood. Infection can happen when blood containing the virus enters a healthy person’s body. In many cases, how a person got infected is not known for sure. HCV can be passed in the following ways:

  • From mother to baby during birth.

  • Through contact with infected blood, such as by touching an open cut or scrape. HCV can also spread if you use an item that has even a tiny amount of an infected person’s blood on it. This includes personal care items (such as toothbrushes, nail clippers, or pierced earrings), and tattoo or drug needles.

  • Through infected blood products during a transfusion. Careful screening of donated blood makes this type of transmission very rare in the United States.

  • During dialysis (a treatment for kidney failure).

  • Through unprotected sex with an infected person.

What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C Infection?

HCV almost never causes symptoms. This means someone can have it for years without knowing. If any symptoms do occur, they will likely be mild. They can include:

  • Pain in the upper right abdomen (where the liver is)

  • Tiredness and weakness

  • Headache

  • Sore muscles and joints

  • Upset stomach, vomiting, or diarrhea

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, dark urine, or light-colored stools)

  • Itchy skin

  • Low-grade fever

How Is Hepatitis C Diagnosed?

The doctor asks questions to determine how the child may have been exposed to hepatitis C. The doctor also does an exam. The child’s blood is tested for HCV. Other tests may be done to see how healthy the liver is and to look for signs of liver damage.

How Is Hepatitis C Treated?

Medication is available to treat chronic HCV infection. In some cases, medication can reduce the amount of HCV in the child’s body to levels that can’t be detected. This lowers the chance of liver damage. But the medication has risks. If it’s an option for your child, the doctor can discuss the pros and cons of medication with you.

Woman wearing gloves placing bandage on boy's injured knee. Protect Your Child’s Health and Prevent Spread

  • Ask your child’s doctor for a list of medications the child should not take. Many prescription and over-the-counter medications stress the liver. These should be avoided. Tell any doctor who prescribes medication for your child that your child has hepatitis.

  • Be aware that some herbs and supplements can strain the liver. Talk to your child’s health care provider before giving the child anything you buy over the counter.

  • Make sure your child eats healthy foods. A diet low in fat, high in fiber, and full of fresh fruits and vegetables can help keep your child healthy.

  • Teach your child to not drink alcohol. Alcohol can cause severe liver damage in people with hepatitis. If you teach your child to avoid alcohol at a young age, he or she may be more likely to drink less or abstain as an adult.

  • Have your child vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. These are two other forms of hepatitis that could cause more damage to the liver. Other people in your household should also have hepatitis A and B vaccinations. There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C.

  • Teach your child how to prevent the spread of hepatitis C to others. Take precautions to avoid exposing yourself to your child’s hepatitis C.

What Are the Long-Term Concerns?

A child with chronic HCV infection should visit the doctor regularly. This way, the doctor can watch for liver damage. Tests will be done to monitor the health of your child’s liver. Hepatitis C causes damage over many years. A child with hepatitis C may develop cirrhosis (scarring in the liver) as an adult. This can lead to problems, and possibly the need for a liver transplant.

Call the Doctor

Contact your doctor if your child:

  • Has signs of dehydration: decreased urination; very dark urine; dry mouth; refusal to drink fluids; no tears when crying

  • Is extremely irritable or drowsy

  • Loses consciousness

  • Has swelling in the hands, arms, feet, ankles, abdomen, or face

  • Bleeds from the nose, mouth, or rectum, or has bloody stools

  • Bruises more easily than normal