Each year in the United States, more than 16,000 people are infected with the acute hepatitis C virus (HCV). The acute form of this viral infection may produce only brief symptoms, so some people never know they have it. Unfortunately, that can lead to bigger problems down the road.
Acute vs. chronic
Acute hepatitis C is a contagious disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread through contact with infected blood and bodily fluids. This disease damages a person’s liver. There are two types of hepatitis C: acute and chronic.
Acute hepatitis C is a short-term viral infection. People with acute hepatitis C are infectious for a small window of time, often just several months. Most people infected with the acute form of hepatitis C will experience illness and symptoms such as fatigue and vomiting within the first six months after exposure. In many cases, the disease causes no symptoms at all. When it does, symptoms are typically mild.
The disease may improve or resolve without treatment. It leads to chronic infection in 75 to 85 percent of cases, according to the Office of Population Affairs in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The chronic form may cause long-term problems in the liver, including liver damage and liver cancer.
HCV is spread through direct contact with an infected person’s blood or certain bodily fluids, such as semen. However, it’s safe to engage in the following activities with someone who’s infected:
- holding hands
- sharing eating utensils or glasses
Also, coughing and sneezing are not ways in which the virus is spread.
Most new cases of acute hepatitis C occur in intravenous drug users who use contaminated needles. Other people at risk for transmission of HCV include:
- healthcare workers who get stuck with a needle that’s been used in an infected person
- children born to infected mothers
- people who get a tattoo or body piercing with unsterile equipment
- people undergoing hemodialysis
- family members of a person with hepatitis C, since direct exposure to blood is higher in a household with an HCV-positive person
- people who share personal hygiene products, such as razors or toothbrushes, with infected people
- sexually active people who engaged in sexual contact with multiple partners and without proper barrier protection, such as condoms or dental dams
- people who had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992 or received clotting factors before 1987
Symptoms don’t always appear immediately. Symptoms may be noticeable within 14 days in some people. Others may take as long as six months to produce any sign. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average period it takes to show symptoms is six to seven weeks. However, 75 percent of people who contract acute hepatitis C never experience any symptoms.
Symptoms of acute hepatitis C range from very mild to severe. They include:
- loss of appetite
- abdominal pain
- joint pain
- dark urine
- light, clay-colored bowel movements
- jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes
If your doctor suspects that you have hepatitis C, they will draw blood to check for hepatitis C antibodies. Antibodies are substances your body produces when it’s fighting an infection. If you have HCV antibodies, your doctor may order a second test to confirm that the virus is still present. If your second test is also positive, you have hepatitis C.
If you are positive, your doctor may want to check your liver enzyme levels. This lets them know if the disease has affected your liver. Some people infected with the virus will have normal levels.
Acute hepatitis C can be treated. Treatment reduces the risk that the disease will progress to the chronic form. The infection will resolve on its own without treatment in 15 to 25 percent of HCV-positive people. The following treatment may be all that’s necessary:
- proper rest
- adequate fluids
- a healthy diet
Some people may need treatment with prescription medicine. Doctors usually prescribe the same medications to treat both acute and chronic hepatitis C.
The most serious long-term risk of an acute hepatitis C infection is developing chronic hepatitis C, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. In 75 to 85 percent of individuals with the acute form, the disease will progress to the more serious chronic hepatitis C.
Early detection and treatment are the best ways to prevent the more serious form of the disease.
Acute hepatitis C is a contagious viral infection spread through contact with infected blood and bodily fluids. The main risk of the acute form of the disease is that it will develop into chronic hepatitis C, a more serious form of the disease that can cause liver damage and liver cancer. If you think you may have been infected with hepatitis C, contact your doctor and get early treatment. Early detection and treatment are the best ways to prevent the more serious chronic form of the disease.