Hepatitis C: Symptoms, Transmission, Causes, Testing, Treatment & More

Written By: Dr. Emad Fayyad

A gastroenterology specialist, Dr. Emad Fayyad completed his Bachelors and Masters from Romania, and has also qualified for the Jordan Board Certificate in Gastroenterology.

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What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver. Although a number of factors can cause hepatitis such as heavy alcohol use, drugs and some metabolic disorders, the most common cause is virus infection. The three main forms of viral hepatitis are A, B and C. Similar to other viral types, hepatitis C, or HCV, attacks the liver causing it to become inflamed. If left untreated, it can cause serious long-term damage.

What are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?

In the initial stage (acute hepatitis C), symptoms may only lead to mild illness or not produce any signs or symptoms at all. If left undetected, it could develop into a serious condition (chronic hepatitis) leading to permanent liver damage.

Acute hepatitis C

It is unusual to diagnose hepatitis C during the acute stage as it produces no symptoms. This is why it is known as the silent epidemic. Symptoms, if any, can take anywhere between 2 weeks and 6 months to develop. They are similar to viral infections and the symptoms include:

  • Yellow skin or eyes
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Light-colored stool
  • Joint pain

A smaller percentage of people will be able to rid the virus from their bodies without any diagnosis or treatment.

Chronic hepatitis C

If the body is not able to rid itself of the virus, hepatitis C enters into the chronic stage. However, it may still not produce any specific identifiable symptoms until the virus has caused substantial damage to the liver. Symptoms of chronic hepatitis C may include:

  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bruising easily
  • General weakness and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Light-colored stool
  • Jaundice
  • Itchy skin

How is Hepatitis C Diagnosed?

Generally, chronic hepatitis is detected during a routine screening for pregnant women, blood donations or high-risk individuals. In a routine test, blood is screened for hepatitis C antibodies (anti-HVC antibody). If this comes out positive, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test may be taken to determine how much of the virus is present in the blood (viral load).

The next stage is to detect the level of liver damage. There are a number of blood tests that can clinically predict the level of damage from scarring (fibrosis). An MRI or ultrasound can determine liver stiffness which also results from scarring. In extreme cases, a liver biopsy may be required.

When to see a doctor for hepatitis C?

People can live for years without developing any symptoms, therefore those in high-risk categories should be screened for hepatitis C.

What are the Causes of hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is contracted from exposure to blood infected with HCV. Like HIV, there has to be blood-to-blood contact for the virus to spread.

What are the Risk Factors for Hepatitis C?

High risk factors for developing hepatitis C include:

  • Sharing contaminated needles.
  • Having had a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to 1992, when screening was not as prevalent.

Lower risk factors include:

  • Sharing personal items such as toothbrushes, razors and nail clippers with an infected person.
  • Birth to an infected mother.
  • Having unprotected sex with an infected person.
  • Receiving a tattoo from an unregulated facility with non-sterile equipment.
  • Having an accident with needles sticks in a health care setting.

Stages of Hepatitis C

Acute hepatitis c

Although most people do not develop symptoms with acute hepatitis, some mild symptoms may show up between 2 and 12 weeks and sometimes up to 6 months. This is the acute stage.

Chronic hepatitis C

If left untreated, or if the body is not able to heal itself from the virus, acute hepatitis can turn into a chronic condition. The chronic stage can stay with the person for the rest of their lives during which time the virus slowly begins to destroy the liver tissue.

Complications of Hepatitis C

If hepatitis C is not detected in the early stages, it can lead to serious liver damage. Damage progresses in the following order:

  • Inflammation in the liver can destroy liver cells and lead to scarring (fibrosis).
  • Scarring over a long period of time can lead to advanced fibrosis and inevitably to liver cirrhosis.
  • In the final stages, the liver becomes increasingly stiff and stops functioning.
  • This can progress to end-stage liver disease (ESLD) or liver failure.
  • Liver cancer.

How do you Treat Hepatitis C?

Treatment for acute hepatitis C infection

There is no set protocol for treating hepatitis C in the acute stage. The doctor may choose to defer treatment for up to 12 weeks to see whether the body naturally heals itself of the virus. After that, the use of direct-acting antiviral medicines (DAAs) is most likely.

Treatment for chronic hepatitis C infection

Modern advances in medicine means that treatment for hepatitis C is successful in the majority of cases. Direct-acting antiviral medicines (DAAs) taken over 8 to 24 weeks can cure the disease with only mild side effects. Checking the viral load after treatment will determine whether the treatment has been successful. Those with irreversible liver damage from cirrhosis will require ongoing monitoring. In the case of advanced cirrhosis or liver failure, a liver transplant may be necessary.

Hepatitis C Home Remedies

There are no over the counter treatments for hepatitis C and associated liver disease but the following lifestyle habits can support liver health:

  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Avoiding medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and some cholesterol drugs
  • Avoiding fried and processed foods
  • Avoiding foods high in fat, sugar and fat
  • Avoiding foods with high iron content
  • Avoiding iron pots and pans for cooking
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Staying hydrated

How do you Prevent Hepatitis C?

At present, there is no vaccine to protect against the HVC virus. In order to prevent infection, the following protocols should be followed:

  • Never share or reuse needles for medication.
  • Stop using illicit drugs especially by injection.
  • Do not share personal items such as toothbrush, razors, nail clippers or even glucose monitors with anyone that might be infected
  • Do not get tattoos or body piercings from unlicensed facilities.
  • Always follow safety guidelines in healthcare settings to ensure safe needle usage.
  • Use barrier contraception in the case of multiple sexual partners.

For more information on symptoms, transmission, causes, testing, and treatment of hepatitis C, get in touch with us.

Meet our doctors from the Gastroenterology department

Emad Fayyad
MD, Board Certified Consultant Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist
Gastroenterology
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MBBS, MD, DM
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MD
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