Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) that leads to liver inflammation. Symptoms can be mild for many years, even while liver damage is taking place. Many people with hepatitis C end up with chronic hepatitis C that can last a lifetime. The consequences of long-term infection include liver damage, liver cancer, and even death.

Early detection and treatment are key for stopping the progression of hepatitis C and avoiding major complications.

Read on to learn how HCV is spread and how the infection progresses.

You can contract HCV through contact with blood or some bodily fluids that contains HCV. You’re at risk of contracting the virus if you:

  • share infected needles
  • come into regular contact with blood
  • have had long-term kidney dialysis
  • engage in sex with multiple partners without condoms

Mothers with HCV also can pass the virus on to their children during childbirth, but not through breastfeeding.

In most cases, there are no early warning signs. Most people are symptom-free and remain unaware of the infection. Others experience mild symptoms, such as fatigue and loss of appetite, which tend to clear up on their own.

About 15 to 20 percent of people who contract HCV fight it off without treatment or long-term damage to their health.

The acute phase of hepatitis C is the first six months after contracting HCV. Early symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • jaundice, or mild yellowing of your skin and eyes

In most cases, symptoms clear up within a few weeks. If your immune system doesn’t fight the infection on its own, it enters the chronic phase. Because of the lack of symptoms, hepatitis C can go unnoticed for years. It’s often discovered during a blood test that’s being done for other reasons.

About 75 to 85 percent of people with hepatitis C progress to the chronic phase. However, even in the chronic phase, it may take years for symptoms to show. Progression begins with inflammation of the liver, followed by death of liver cells. This causes scarring and hardening of liver tissue.

About 20 percent of people with chronic hepatitis C go on to develop cirrhosis of the liver in 15 to 20 years.

When permanent scar tissue replaces healthy liver cells and your liver loses the ability to function, it’s called cirrhosis. In this condition, your liver can no longer heal itself. This can cause a variety of health concerns, including a buildup of fluid in your abdomen and bleeding from veins in the esophagus.

When the liver fails to filter toxins, they can build up in your bloodstream and impair brain function. Cirrhosis of the liver can sometimes develop into liver cancer. This risk is greater in people who drink excess alcohol. Treatment of cirrhosis depends on the progression of the condition.

Chronic hepatitis C can cause serious long-term health consequences. End-stage hepatitis C occurs when the liver is severely damaged and can no longer function properly.

Symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • jaundice
  • nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • abdominal swelling
  • muddled thinking

People with cirrhosis may also experience bleeding in the esophagus, as well as brain and nervous system damage.

A liver transplant is the only treatment for end-stage liver disease. Those who’ve had hepatitis C and receive a liver transplant almost always see a return of the infection. Because the disease recurs, treatment of the viral infection usually follows transplant surgery.

Because alcohol is processed in the liver, consumption of excess alcohol can hasten liver damage. Damage also progresses faster in people with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV.

People who also have hepatitis B are at an increased risk for developing liver cancer.

Men with cirrhosis tend to progress faster than women with the condition. Additionally, people over 40 with cirrhosis progress at a faster rate than younger people.

If you think you have hepatitis C at any stage, consult with your doctor. Early detection and treatment is the best way to prevent and treat any serious complications or progression. Since there’s no vaccine for hepatitis C, the best prevention measure is to avoid situations where you’d come into contact with another person’s blood.