Hepatitis, an inflammation of your liver, is most commonly caused by five main hepatitis viruses:

Other causes of hepatitis include:

  • infection
  • medication
  • toxins
  • autoimmune processes

The hepatitis C virus can range from mild to severe. Chronic hepatitis C can have major health consequences, including permanent liver damage and liver cancer. In some cases, it can be fatal.

Hepatitis C can be treated and cured. In the early stages of the disease, though, most people don’t notice any symptoms, so you may not always know you have it.

Recognizing the early signs and symptoms of hepatitis C can help you get a timely diagnosis and treatment.

What are the different types of hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic. How long you experience symptoms will depend on the type you have.

Acute hepatitis C involves more short-term symptoms that typically last 6 months or less — but acute hepatitis often leads to chronic hepatitis. When hepatitis C lasts longer than 6 months, it’s considered chronic.

Without treatment, you may have chronic hepatitis your whole life, since your body often can’t get rid of the virus easily. Some people do get better without treatment, although treatment can go a long way toward improving the outlook.

According to the World Health Organization, up to 80 percent of those who contract the hepatitis C virus won’t experience any symptoms at first.

The symptoms you do experience, if any, can depend on whether you have acute or chronic hepatitis C.

Acute symptoms

Many people with acute hepatitis C have no symptoms, so you may not feel at all sick after contracting the virus.

When acute symptoms appear, they usually show up between 2 and 12 weeks after exposure to the virus.

These symptoms, which can range from mild to severe, might include:

Again, symptoms may not show up for months or even years. They may not develop until the acute infection becomes chronic and begins to damage your liver, which can take several years.

Chronic symptoms

Chronic hepatitis C often doesn’t cause many obvious symptoms, either. Some people notice fatigue, a low mood, muscle aches — in other words, general symptoms that might seem unrelated to each other.

Possible symptoms of chronic hepatitis C include:

These symptoms may come and go over time.

Signs of chronic hepatitis C can also include symptoms of liver disease or cirrhosis, such as:

Hepatitis C won’t necessarily become chronic.

As a matter of fact, for anywhere from 15 to 45 percent of people with acute hepatitis C, the virus will clear up without treatment. In other words, if you don’t have any symptoms, hepatitis C could improve on its own before you ever know you have it.

However, if your body can’t get rid of the hepatitis C virus, the infection won’t go away. Instead, it will become chronic, or long-term.

Experts aren’t sure why some people develop the chronic form of the disease and others don’t. But more than half of all people with the hepatitis C virus will eventually develop the chronic form, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Since hepatitis C symptoms can resemble those of other health conditions, your symptoms alone — if you have any — may not make it clear that you have hepatitis C.

A doctor or other healthcare professional may recommend getting tested if you:

  • have symptoms of hepatitis C
  • believe you’ve been exposed to the virus
  • have never had a test for hepatitis C before
  • have a higher risk of contracting hepatitis C
  • are pregnant

Learn more about risk factors for hepatitis C.

A blood test (HCV antibody test) can help confirm whether you have the condition, but this test may not give a positive result until 8 to 11 weeks after you’ve been exposed to the virus.

  • A negative (nonreactive) test means you don’t currently have the virus.
  • A positive (reactive) test could mean you currently have hepatitis C, but it can also mean you’ve had the virus before and cleared it from your body without treatment.

If you receive a positive (reactive) test result, your doctor will order a PCR test, also called a nucleic acid test (NAT) for HCV RNA. This test, which can detect the virus between 1 and 2 weeks after you’ve been exposed, can come back negative or positive.

  • Negative means you once had the virus but no longer do, either because you got treatment or because it cleared up on its own.
  • Positive means you currently have the hepatitis C virus.

If your blood test reveals that you currently have hepatitis C, a doctor or other healthcare professional may recommend a biopsy of your liver to determine whether the condition has led to any liver damage.

You can book an appointment with a primary care doctor in your area using our FindCare tool.

Several antiviral medications can treat symptoms of hepatitis C. These include, among others:

  • daclatasvir (Daklinza)
  • ledipasvir/sofosbuvir (Harvoni)
  • simeprevir (Olysio)
  • sofosbuvir (Sovaldi)
  • glecapravir/pibrentasvir (Mavyret)

Learn more about hepatitis C treatments and their potential side effects.

Newer hepatitis C treatments known as direct-acting antiviral medications can cure the acute form of the condition. In many cases, they can also cure chronic hepatitis C.

You’ll need to continue treatment for anywhere from 8 to 24 weeks. If you have acute hepatitis C without symptoms, a doctor or other healthcare professional may suggest waiting to start treatment, since the infection may go away on its own.

The length of your treatment can depend on whether you’ve had treatment for hepatitis C before, whether you have liver damage, and what genotype you have. A doctor or other healthcare professional will typically order a genotype test before recommending a treatment approach.

If you have chronic hepatitis C, your care team might also include a liver specialist who can help find the right treatment plan for your needs.

During treatment, they will monitor any symptoms you have. You may also need additional blood tests to help determine whether your treatment is working.

Researchers have yet to develop a vaccine that prevents hepatitis C (though vaccines can help prevent hepatitis A and B).

Just as you might not know you have hepatitis C, other people with the condition may not know they have it, either. But you can take a few key precautions to avoid contracting it:

  • Avoid sharing needles.
  • When getting piercings or tattoos, check to make sure the piercer or tattoo artist uses only sterile, unopened needles and ink.
  • Avoid sharing nail clippers, razors, and toothbrushes.
  • Use sterile gloves when caring for someone else’s wound.

Since hepatitis C is transmitted through blood, you won’t get it by sharing food and drinks with someone who has the condition or by hugging, touching, or holding hands.

Hepatitis C is not commonly transmitted through sexual contact. But using a condom or another barrier method when having sex can always help lower your chances of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.

Keep in mind that you can contract hepatitis C again, even if you’ve had it already.

Since so many people don’t experience any symptoms, healthcare professionals recommend getting screened for hepatitis C at least once in your adult life. They may recommend more frequent screenings if you have a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Hepatitis C doesn’t always become severe, but the chronic form can increase your risk for liver damage, liver cancer, and liver failure.

If you have any symptoms that suggest hepatitis C, especially if there’s a chance you’ve been exposed, connect with a doctor or another healthcare professional as soon as possible to discuss your options for testing and treatment.

With a prompt diagnosis, you can get treatment earlier, which may help prevent damage to your liver.

Read this article in Spanish.