Hepatitis C is a viral condition that leads to inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C infections can be acute or chronic. A chronic infection can lead to serious complications, but appropriate treatment can usually cure the hepatitis virus.

Hepatitis C is an inflammation of the liver that develops after contracting the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV is bloodborne, which means you can only transmit or contract it through blood that carries it.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 58 million people globally are living with chronic hepatitis C.

In the United States, hepatitis C is among the most common types of hepatitis, along with hepatitis A and B. There are vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and B, but a vaccine to prevent hepatitis C doesn’t yet exist.

Stages of hepatitis C

Hepatitis C can be either acute or chronic.

Doctors generally define acute hepatitis C as the first 6 months after infection. It is most often asymptomatic. Any symptoms you experience may appear within 2–12 weeks after exposure, and they could clear up on their own.

Chronic hepatitis C symptoms, on the other hand, can develop (and worsen) over months or even years. You might not notice any symptoms until they become severe.

Left untreated, hepatitis C can cause serious, even life threatening complications, including:

Symptoms may develop 2–12 weeks after exposure. The first 6 months after infection are considered acute.

Acute hepatitis C may cause:

If your body doesn’t clear the virus, acute hepatitis C will become chronic. An estimated 55–85% of people who contract HCV will eventually develop chronic hepatitis C.

Chronic hepatitis C may cause:

These symptoms might affect you most of the time or improve for a while and then worsen.

With chronic hepatitis C, you could also notice some symptoms of liver scarring and liver disease, including:

Hepatitis C is a liver disease that occurs due to HCV infection. HCV transmits through blood-to-blood contact.

This can happen as a result of:

You have an increased risk of HCV infection if you:

  • have used injection drugs
  • have a sexual partner with hepatitis C
  • have HIV
  • received hemodialysis treatment for an extended period
  • received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
  • received clotting factor concentrates or other blood products before 1987

It’s important to consult with a doctor or other healthcare professional if you suspect that you’ve had exposure to HCV. You can contract HCV more than once.

Your healthcare professional will order blood tests to check for the virus, starting with an antibody test.

If you’ve ever had an HCV infection, your body will make hepatitis C antibodies part of its immune response. It may take 2–3 months after exposure for the test to detect antibodies.

If the antibody test is positive, a nucleic acid test for ribonucleic acid (RNA) can tell your healthcare professional whether the virus is currently active.

In the event of an active HCV infection, tests to measure the amount of virus in your blood (viral load) and determine which genotype you have will guide an effective treatment plan.

If blood test results suggest chronic hepatitis C or your healthcare professional believes you could have liver damage, they’ll order a liver function test. This test checks your blood for signs of heightened enzymes in your liver.

A type of scan called ultrasound elastography can be used to assess liver damage.

A liver biopsy can also check for liver damage. A biopsy involves taking a small piece of tissue from your liver and testing it for cell abnormalities.

Oral medications called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) work to remove HCV from your body and reduce the risk of liver damage.

Treatment often includes two or more DAAs taken in combination. Some treatments are available as pills containing two or more drugs.

Common brand names include:

A typical course of treatment lasts 12–24 weeks.

Is hepatitis C curable?

Treatment can cure hepatitis C 95% of the time. Healthcare professionals consider the condition cured when tests can’t detect the virus in your blood 12 weeks after treatment ends.

HCV infection causes liver inflammation. Over time, this damage can cause permanent scarring, known as cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis interferes with blood flow and prevents your liver from functioning effectively. An estimated 15–30% of people with chronic hepatitis C develop cirrhosis within 20 years.

Untreated or unmanaged cirrhosis can lead to:

  • increased pressure in the veins that supply blood to your liver (portal hypertension)
  • fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites), which can lead to a severe infection called bacterial peritonitis
  • fluid buildup in the legs (edema)
  • an enlarged spleen (splenomegaly)
  • enlarged veins (varices) in the esophagus or stomach, which can lead to life threatening bleeding (variceal hemorrhage)

Advanced liver disease can also lead to:

It takes a long time for chronic hepatitis C to cause liver failure. Liver failure or end stage liver disease, happens slowly over months, often years. When your liver becomes unable to function properly, you’ll need a transplant.

Experts have yet to develop an effective hepatitis C vaccine, though research continues.

Currently, the best way to reduce your risk of infection is to avoid using any items that may have come into contact with someone else’s blood.

You can do this by:

  • not sharing razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes, needles, or syringes
  • only getting tattoos or piercings at licensed facilities
  • wearing gloves when cleaning or treating someone else’s wound
  • using condoms or other barrier methods during sex

If you think you could have hepatitis C, getting tested right away doesn’t just help you get treatment. It can also help you avoid transmitting the virus to others.

You can contract HCV through blood-to-blood contact with someone who has the virus. While your body might clear an acute infection without treatment, hepatitis C often develops into a chronic condition.

Prompt diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the risk of long-term complications, including severe liver damage and liver failure.

Regular hepatitis C screenings can help with early detection. Consult with a healthcare professional to develop a screening schedule tailored to your individual level of risk.