What you need to know about hepatitis C

Learn about the causes, symptoms, and complications of this viral infection.

a young man speaks with an older male Asian doctor

Updated on June 3, 2022.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection characterized by inflammation of the liver. It can be acute, or short term, or chronic, meaning lifelong. An acute infection can go away on its own, but up to 85 percent of cases become chronic after six months of acute infection. The condition can lead to serious problems such as liver scarring or liver cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2.7 and 3.9 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C. Between 1 and 5 percent of those infected with the hepatitis C virus die each year from liver diseases that result from the condition.

While there currently is no vaccine for the disease, antiviral medications are available to cure it, and preventive measures can be taken to reduce the risk of spreading hepatitis C. 

Causes and symptoms

Hepatitis C occurs when a person has blood-to-blood contact with an infected individual. The most common methods of blood transmission, according to the CDC, include sharing contaminated needles (and, less commonly, unclean tattoo or piercing instruments), sharing razors and toothbrushes, or during sex. The infection can also pass from mother to baby during childbirth.

Symptoms of acute hepatitis C occur on average six to seven weeks after exposure, but this can range from two weeks to six months. Common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice (yellow color in the skin and whites of eyes)

A long-term hepatitis C infection will usually not have symptoms for many years. But if left untreated, it may lead to liver disease such as cirrhosis, a scarring of the liver. It is also important to note that approximately 70 to 80 percent of people with hepatitis C do not exhibit any symptoms. People who do not show symptoms can still spread the disease.

Medication options

Hepatitis C in its acute or chronic stages can be treated. Approximately 15 to 25 percent of people who are infected with acute hepatitis C will not develop chronic hepatitis and will clear the infection on their own, according to the CDC. Experts aren’t completely sure why.

Antiviral therapies are used treat both acute and chronic infections. Newer drugs and medicines tend to have minimal side effects. Common side effects of hepatitis C drugs include headache, fatigue, nausea, and sleep problems. Talk with a healthcare provider (HCP) about potential side effects when taking new medication.

Lifestyle changes

People with hepatitis C should visit an HCP regularly to monitor their liver function and disease progression. Hepatitis C isn’t spread through casual, day-to-day contact, so those infected can still go to work, school, childcare, or be present in public settings.

If you have hepatitis C, avoid alcohol because it may trigger additional liver damage. When deciding on treatment, review the side effects of drugs with an HCP and avoid other medicines that affect the liver.

It’s crucial for people with hepatitis C to prevent others from coming into contact with their blood. They should disinfect and cover all open wounds, refrain from sharing razors and toothbrushes, and should not donate blood, organs, or semen. Let sexual partners know of the condition and use condoms or other barrier methods during sex. By taking these precautions, you can reduce the spread of hepatitis C.

Article sources open article sources

US Department of Health and Human Services. Hepatitis C. Last Reviewed March 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for Health Professionals. Last Reviewed: August 7, 2020.
World Health Organization. Hepatitis C. June 2, 2022.
Basit H, Tyagi I, Koirala J. Hepatitis C. 2022 May 2. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan.
Walker, M.R., Leung, P., Eltahla, A.A. et al. Clearance of hepatitis C virus is associated with early and potent but narrowly-directed, Envelope-specific antibodies. Sci Rep 9, 13300 (2019).

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