What is acute hepatitis C?

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 40,000 people are acutely infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The acute form of this viral infection may produce only brief symptoms, so some people never know they have it. That can lead to the development of a more serious form of this infection.

Hepatitis C is a contagious disease caused by HCV, which is spread through contact with blood and bodily fluids that contain HCV. This disease damages your liver. There are two types of hepatitis C infection: acute and chronic.

Acute hepatitis C is a short-term viral infection. People with acute hepatitis C carry the infection for a small window of time, often just several months. Most people with the acute form of hepatitis C will experience illness and mild symptoms such as fatigue and vomiting within the first six months after exposure. In many cases, the disease causes no symptoms at all.

Acute hepatitis C may improve or resolve without treatment. It leads to chronic infection in 75 to 85 percent of cases. The chronic form may cause long-term problems in your liver, including liver damage and liver cancer.

HCV is spread through direct contact with blood or certain bodily fluids that contain HCV. It’s safe to engage in the following activities without worry of transmission:

  • hugging
  • kissing
  • holding hands
  • sharing eating utensils or glasses

Also, the virus is not spread by coughing and sneezing.

Symptoms don’t always appear immediately. Symptoms may be noticeable within 14 days but may take as long as six months to produce any sign. The average period it takes to show symptoms is six to seven weeks. However, most people who contract acute hepatitis C never experience any symptoms.

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

If your doctor suspects that you have hepatitis C, they will draw blood to check for HCV antibodies. Antibodies are substances your body produces when it’s fighting an infection. If you have them, your doctor may order a second test to confirm that the virus is still present.

If you are positive for the presence of HCV, your doctor may want to check your liver enzyme levels. This lets them know if the disease has affected your liver. Some people with the virus will have normal levels.

Acute hepatitis C is typically monitored and not treated. Treatment during the acute stage doesn’t change the risk that the disease will progress to the chronic form. An acute infection may resolve on its own without treatment. The following treatment may be all that’s necessary:

  • proper rest
  • adequate fluids
  • a healthy diet

Some people may need treatment with prescription medication. Your doctor will be able to work with you about what treatment options may be best for you.

Those most at risk for acute and chronic hepatitis C are people who use or share contaminated needles. Mothers can transmit HCV to their babies during childbirth, but not through breastfeeding. Other risk factors for transmission of HCV include:

  • healthcare work, especially work around needles
  • getting a tattoo or body piercing with unsterile equipment
  • undergoing hemodialysis
  • living in a household with someone with HCV
  • sharing personal hygiene products, such as razors or toothbrushes
  • engaging in sexual activity with multiple partners without condoms or dental dams
  • having a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992 or receiving clotting factors before 1987

The most serious long-term risk of acute hepatitis C is developing chronic hepatitis C, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. In 75 to 85 percent of those with acute hepatitis C, 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 hepatitis C. There’s no vaccine for hepatitis C, so the best way to prevent it is to avoid any situations in which you could come into contact with another person’s blood.

Acute hepatitis C is a contagious viral infection spread through contact with blood and bodily fluids that contain HCV. The main risk of the acute form of the disease is development 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 hepatitis C, contact your doctor. Early detection and treatment are the best ways to prevent the more serious chronic form of the disease.