Hepatitis C (HCV) is a virus that can result in either an acute or chronic infection, sometimes resulting in serious complications affecting the liver. While there is no cure for HCV, there are treatment options to help ease any hepatitis C symptoms you may experience.
Learn more about Hepatitis C symptoms and what treatments are available.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C, or HCV, is a virus that infects the liver. The word “hepatitis” means an inflammation of the liver, with viruses A, B, and C being separate viruses that result in similar effects.
While hepatitis A usually goes away on its own without treatment, hepatitis B and hepatitis C symptoms can be more serious. Hepatitis C can be either acute or chronic, affecting the liver in ways that range anywhere from mild to serious. While hepatitis C symptoms are often short-lived and rarely result in death, HCV can lead to life-threatening complications such as cirrhosis 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 of preventing hepatitis C is by being aware of how the virus is transmitted.
Hepatitis C can be transmitted through sexual contact, though the risk of catching HCV through sexual activity (whether vaginal, anal, or oral) is less common than with other STDs. Having numerous partners, having rough sex, and having another STD can all raise your chances of contracting hepatitis C through sexual contact.
Hepatitis C is most commonly transmitted through blood-to-blood exposure, such as through open wounds or the sharing of needles. This can include intravenous drug use but also includes tattooing and piercing. While professional establishments today are careful to take sanitary precautions, be careful when getting amateur tattoos or piercings from friends or family. Hepatitis C can also be spread through sharing razors, so this, too, should be avoided.
While hepatitis C was originally known to be transmitted through blood transfusions and organ transplants, new precautionary measures have been put into place in the last 30 years to prevent this from happening.
While hepatitis C can exist outside of the human body for up to three weeks at room temperature, it is not easily spread throughout a household. It cannot be spread through sharing food, hugging, kissing, coughing, sneezing, or holding hands.
If you believe you may have been exposed to HCV and have developed hepatitis C symptoms, getting tested can help your doctor provide next-steps for your health.
What Do Hepatitis C Symptoms Look Like?
The majority of those who contract HCV will not have any hepatitis C symptoms. As many as 80% of those with HCV will be asymptomatic, showing no signs of the illness. For those who do experience symptoms, they are most likely to experience them within two to eight weeks after infection. These symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Some of the most common hepatitis C symptoms are listed below.
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Jaundice (yellowing skin or eyes)
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored bowel movements
- Joint pain
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Itchy skin
- Swelling in the abdomen (ascites)
- Swelling in the legs
- Weight loss
- Confusion, drowsiness, or slurred speech
- Spider angiomas (web-like veins under your skin)
Hepatitis C symptoms can begin to show as soon as two weeks, though the average is six to seven weeks after exposure, if you show any symptoms at all.
While the above symptoms might be mild, hepatitis C can develop some very serious complications. Complications from HCV include scarring (cirrhosis) and cancer of the liver. These complications are the result of an infection that has developed from the acute stage into an infection that is chronic. Not every acute infection will become chronic. Complications can develop even if the person infected with HCV is showing no outward hepatitis C symptoms.
Knowing your hepatitis C status will make it easier for your doctor to provide the proper treatment. The only way to be certain that you have contracted HCV or that you are experiencing hepatitis C symptoms is by getting tested.
What Can I Expect When I Get Tested?
If you believe you are displaying hepatitis C symptoms, or believe you were exposed to HCV, you can get answers through a simple blood test. This test will look for antibodies in your system, which will indicate that your body has reacted to hepatitis C virus. Because the virus can take weeks to show up in your system, it is recommended that you wait as long as eight to nine weeks before getting tested for hepatitis C.
What Can I Expect from Hepatitis C Treatment?
Treatment for hepatitis C symptoms vary by the severity of the infection, such as the hepatitis C genotype, existing damage to your liver, and other medical conditions or treatments in progress. For 80 – 90% of those who contract HCV, the virus can be cured with medication.
For as many as 25% of those infected with HCV, no treatment is necessary; their body will naturally fight the virus, leaving them with few symptoms. It is likely that these individuals will be unaware they’ve ever contracted the virus. For others, especially those who are aware of exposure, your doctor may wish to provide an antiviral medication as a precaution, so your acute infection is less likely to develop into chronic hepatitis C. The goal of treatment for acute hepatitis C is to show no signs of the virus in your system for 12 weeks, consecutively, after finishing your medication.
For those with chronic HCV, medication can be necessary as a way of helping alleviate the discomfort associated with hepatitis C symptoms. You should also schedule regular check-ups with your doctor, so a medical professional can provide routine care. When living with chronic hepatitis C symptoms, check with your doctor regarding which medications, supplements, and over-the-counter drugs are safe for your consumption. Some of these may cause liver damage to those living with HCV. People with chronic HCV should also avoid alcohol.
How Will Hepatitis C Affect My Pregnancy?
Hepatitis C can be passed on from mother to child, most notably for women who have HIV. Out of every 100 babies born to a mother with hepatitis C, four will be born infected with the virus. Tell your doctor if you have hepatitis C symptoms or if you are concerned that you have been exposed to HCV.