Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Oct 09, 2018
Last Modified Date: Oct 09, 2018
Published Date: Aug 23, 2017
Hepatitis C: Are You at Risk? Know the Signs and Symptoms
Since it is one of the three most common forms of Hepatitis, knowing how to recognize Hepatitis C symptoms is very important. A contagious disease that results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV), Hepatitis C can present as either an acute infection or a chronic, lifelong disease that, if left undiagnosed and untreated, can eventually result in liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer or even death. Symptoms of Hepatitis C are often very subtle, but the disease can be confirmed or detected through blood tests.
Hepatitis C: What it is and How it Spreads
Hepatitis is a general term that means inflammation of the liver, a condition that can stem from a variety of causes that include exposure to toxins, certain prescription and over the counter drugs, heavy alcohol consumption, and a number of bacterial and viral infections. However, the more familiar use of the term is as the name for a family of viral infections that affect the liver. The three most common forms of Hepatitis are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. Of these three viruses, Hepatitis C only one for which no vaccine has been developed to protect against infection. According to the CDC, Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne infection in the United States, with an estimated 3.2 million individuals infected nationwide.
The Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), which causes the infection, is transmitted through the blood and certain other bodily fluids of infected individuals. Before 1992, when modern screening methods came into common use, blood transfusions and organ transplants were among the most common sources of Hep C infection. Today, the most common means of contracting the virus is through infected needles and/or syringes. This usually happens in one of the following ways.
- Sharing of needles or syringes among drug users.
- Accidental needle-stick injuries in health care settings.
- Body piercings or tattoos done with unsterilized, reused equipment. Other, less common means of Hepatitis C infection include:
- Direct, through the skin contact with the blood of an infected individual, through an open cut, for example.
- Sexual contact with an infected individual – while fairly uncommon, this form of transmission is a greater risk for people with multiple sex partners, HIV positive individuals or those infected with other sexually transmitted diseases.
- Transmission from an infected mother to an unborn child.
- Very rarely, blood transfusions – although individuals who had transfusions or organ transplants prior to 1992 are at greater risk than patients undergoing these procedures today.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C: Acute Infections
In 15 to 25 percent of individuals who become infected with HCV, the disease will present as a short term condition called acute Hepatitis C infection. Typically, acute hepatitis C is cleared from the body by the immune system without treatment, generally within a few months. In acute Hepatitis C symptoms, on average, occur within 6 to 7 weeks of exposure, but can appear as much as 6 months after infection. Most common are:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or the whites of the eyes)
- Dark, concentrated urine
- Pale or clay-colored stool
- Joint pain
For the majority of infected individuals, approximately 75 to 80 percent according to CDC figures, Hepatitis C becomes a chronic, lifelong condition. Chronic Hepatitis C infection, in most cases, presents no symptoms or very mild ones, The lack of definitive symptoms often leads to the disease remaining undetected for years, often until affected individuals develop liver damage, cirrhosis, or liver cancer, which can often occur as a result of the severe liver scarring that characterizes cirrhosis.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Patients who have any of the Hepatitis C symptoms or risk factors for exposure listed above should be tested for Hep C infection. Several blood tests are commonly used to detect Hepatitis C, including tests that check for Hep C antibodies and liver function tests. Treatment is not necessary in all cases, but when it is, typically consists of a combination of medications called interferon and ribavirin. All Hepatitis C patients are carefully monitored for signs of liver disease.