Hepatitis C Symptoms

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that can cause serious complications affecting the liver. Many people with the disease have no symptoms and do not know they are infected, yet they can spread the infection to others. Because of this, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that people at risk for getting hepatitis C be tested. Liver damage may be preventable if the disease is caught early.

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What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which infects the liver. There are five different hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D, and E. “Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver, and all of these viruses affect the liver. Hepatitis B and C can be transmitted through sexual contact.

Hepatitis C can be either acute or chronic and can affect the liver in ways that range from mild to serious. While hepatitis C symptoms are often short-lived and rarely result in death, chronic HCV, when the virus remains in the body, can lead to life-threatening complications such as cirrhosis (scarring) or cancer of the liver.

How is Hepatitis C Prevented?

While there are vaccines for both hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The best way to prevent hepatitis C is by being aware of how the virus spreads.

HCV lives in the bloodstream and is most commonly transmitted through exposure to infected blood, especially with sharing of needles. This can include IV drug use but also includes unregulated or amateur tattooing and piercing. Do not share needles. 

HCV can be transmitted through sexual contact, although the risk of catching HCV through sexual activity (whether vaginal, anal, or oral) is less common than with other STDs. Men who have sex with men, though, especially if they are HIV+, are at increased risk of getting hepatitis C through sexual activity.  Having multiple partners or rough sex also raises the chances of contracting HCV through sexual activity. You can avoid infection by using a variety of safer sex practices, including using latex condoms, reducing your number of partners, being in a mutually monogamous relationship, and even abstinence.   

People who live in the same household should not share razors or toothbrushes with anyone who has or may have hepatitis C; these items are sometimes exposed to blood (nicks in the skin, bleeding gums). Hepatitis C is not spread by casual contact like hugging. 

Years ago, HCV was easily spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Thanks to the screening of donated blood, transmission of hepatitis C to someone receiving a blood donation after 1992 is rare.

What do Hepatitis C Symptoms Look Like?

The majority of people who contract HCV will not have any symptoms. For those who do, the symptoms range from mild to severe and are listed below.

For many people, their immune systems can fight off the infection. For some people, though, they will never get rid of the virus, and this is known as chronic hepatitis C.

Chronic hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, even if someone doesn’t have any symptoms. When symptoms develop in people with chronic hepatitis C, they are usually due to liver damage and are also listed below. 

Hepatitis C symptoms can begin to show as soon as 2 weeks after infection, though the average is up to 12 weeks.

What Can I Expect When I Get Tested for Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is diagnosed with a blood test that looks for antibodies to HCV (made by your immune system), which will show that your body has reacted to the virus. It may take up to 10 weeks for your body to develop these antibodies after you are exposed to the virus, so it is possible to have a false negative test result during this time. If the first test shows that you were exposed to HCV, a second blood test is done to confirm the results. If you are confirmed to have hepatitis C, you will also have blood tests to check for liver damage.

What Can I Expect From Hepatitis C Treatment?

Treatment for hepatitis C depends on how severe the infection is, the subtype of HCV, how long someone has had the infection, whether or not there is already liver damage, and other medical conditions or treatments someone has had. Treatment for acute hepatitis C is usually not needed. For people with chronic HCV, antiviral medication for 8 – 12 weeks is recommended; it cures the infection in 80-90% of people.

Many people with chronic hepatitis C will have damage to their livers. Part of the treatment involves protecting the liver from further damage.  Hepatitis A and B vaccines may be recommended. Check with your doctor regarding which vitamins, medications, and supplements are safe; some may cause liver damage. People with chronic HCV should also avoid alcohol.

How Will Hepatitis C Affect My Pregnancy?

Only a small percentage of babies born to mothers with Hepatitis C contract the disease. The virus is usually passed from mother to baby during delivery, and this is more likely for women who have HIV.  Children can be tested for HCV but not until they are at least 18 months old. Hepatitis C does not affect breast milk.

Sources: CDCCDC-2ACOG.orgCDC-3

Medically reviewed by Amy Cyr, MD
Reviewed on October 11, 2019
Hepatitis C Symptoms
  • No noticeable symptoms

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