Hepatitis C: what are the warning signs and should you get tested?

Learn about the current screening recommendations for hep C.

A doctor draws blood from a patient. The patient is getting tested for hep C.

Updated on April 26, 2023.

If you’re wondering if you should get screened for hepatitis C, the answer is yes: Hep C screening is recommended for every person between the ages of 18 and 79 years, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Hep C is a dangerous virus that causes inflammation in the liver. If left untreated, it can cause severe liver damage and even lead to death. It’s spread through contact with blood from someone with the virus. Sometimes it’s just an acute (short-term) infection, but for most people, it becomes chronic and sticks around for life—or until you get treated.

This chronic infection causes liver damage, cirrhosis, and even possibly liver cancer. But one of the most dangerous aspects of the virus is that many people don’t know they have it because symptoms may take decades to appear.

Risk factors for hepatitis C

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), certain people may be at higher risk, including:

  • People born from 1945 to 1965
  • Those who received a blood or organ donation before July 1992 (after which better testing became available)
  • Patients who have been on dialysis for kidney failure
  • A person with HIV
  • People who received blood clotting products before 1987
  • Healthcare workers who have had needle sticks or other exposures
  • People who have ever injected drugs (even if only once or long ago)

It’s also possible, though not as common, to get the virus by sharing items that may have come into contact with blood, such as a toothbrush or a razor, and by having sex with an infected partner. Pregnant people with hep C have about a 6 percent chance of passing it to their babies.

Many people, however, became infected decades ago, and many never figure out exactly how.

Hepatitis C symptoms

While about 70 to 80 percent of people with an acute infection won’t experience any symptoms at all, there are some to watch out for, including fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, joint pain, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, dark urine, jaundice, and bowel movements with a clay color.

These symptoms go away quickly. Once hep C develops into a chronic illness, there are usually no symptoms. After many years, though, a person may develop liver damage. This can bring on fatigue and jaundice, but also more serious symptoms like weight loss, bleeding or bruising easily, spider veins, swelling, and problems with thinking and speaking.

Getting tested

Your healthcare provider (HCP) can order a blood test that will look for antibodies that developed in response to hep C. If the test is positive, your HCP can test you further to see if hep C is still present. Finding out if you have hep C means you can start treatment to avoid the potentially devastating effects of hep C—and possibly even be cured of the virus. 

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