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 disease may produce symptoms in your body only briefly, so some people never know they have it. Unfortunately, that can lead to bigger problems down the road.

Learn more about this viral infection and how you can prevent it.

What Is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Hepatitis C?

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 like fatigue and vomiting within the first six months after exposure. In many cases, the disease never even causes symptoms. When it does, symptoms are typically mild.

The disease may improve or resolve without treatment. However, it leads to chronic infection in 75 to 85 percent of cases. The chronic form may cause long-term problems in the liver, including liver damage and liver cancer.

How Is Acute Hepatitis C Transmitted?

HCV is spread through direct contact with an infected person’s blood or certain bodily fluids such as semen. However, hugging, kissing, and holding hands with an infected person are safe. Sharing eating utensils or glasses is not a way the virus is spread, and neither is coughing or sneezing.

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 get stuck with a needle that has been used in an infected person
  • children born to infected mothers
  • people who get a tattoo or body piercing with unsterile equipment
  • patients undergoing hemodialysis
  • family members of a person with hepatitis C (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 (condoms or dental dams)

What Are the Symptoms of Acute Hepatitis C?

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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average period is six to seven weeks. However, 75 percent of people who contract acute hepatitis C will never experience any symptoms.

Symptoms of acute hepatitis C range from very mild to severe. They include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • abdominal pain
  • joint pain
  • dark urine
  • light (clay-colored) bowel movements
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

Your doctor will draw blood to check for HCV antibodies to diagnose hepatitis C. Antibodies are substances produced by your body 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.

How Is Acute Hepatitis C Treated?

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. Proper rest, adequate fluids, and a healthy diet may be all that is necessary.

Others, however, may need treatment with prescription medicine. The same medications used to treat chronic hepatitis C are prescribed to people with the acute from.

The most serious long-term risk of an acute hepatitis C infection is chronic hepatitis C. 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 is the best way to prevent the more serious form of the disease.