Hepatitis C is a viral condition leading to inflammation of the liver. It can be acute or chronic, and is only transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. Complications can be serious, but if treated, it can usually be cured.

Hepatitis C, an inflammation of the liver, develops after you contract the hepatitis C virus.

This virus is bloodborne, which means you can only transmit or contract it through blood that carries the virus.

Hepatitis C can be either acute or chronic:

  • Acute hepatitis C often involves no symptoms at all. Any symptoms you do experience may appear within a week or two after exposure, and they could clear up on their own in just a few weeks.
  • Chronic hepatitis C symptoms, on the other hand, can develop (and worsen) over a period of months or even years. You might not notice any symptoms until they become severe.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 58 million people around the world have chronic hepatitis C.

In the United States, hepatitis C numbers among the most common types of hepatitis, along with hepatitis A and B. Unlike hepatitis A and B, however, a vaccine to prevent hepatitis C doesn’t yet exist.

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

But most of the time, hepatitis C can be cured. Getting tested and treated promptly can help reduce your chances of severe symptoms and liver failure.

Read on to get the details on hepatitis C symptoms, complications, and treatment, plus a few tips on prevention.

Not everyone with hepatitis C virus experiences symptoms. In fact, about 80 percent of people don’t notice any signs of illness when they first contract the virus.

Symptoms that do develop may vary, depending on whether you have the acute or chronic form of the condition.

Acute hepatitis C

Acute infections occur within 6 months of coming into contact with the virus. Symptoms could show up between 2 and 12 weeks after exposure to the virus.

Symptoms you might experience include:

These cases are often mild, lasting only a few weeks. Sometimes, your body can fight off the infection on its own, so you might not need medical treatment for acute hepatitis C.

When you don’t have any symptoms, you might not even realize you have the infection. But you can still transmit the virus to others, even when you don’t have symptoms.

Chronic hepatitis C

If your body doesn’t clear the hepatitis C virus, acute hepatitis C will become chronic. Between 55 and 85 percent of people who contract hepatitis C will eventually develop chronic hepatitis C.

The chronic form of hepatitis C doesn’t go away on its own, and without treatment, your symptoms can get worse. These symptoms can have long-term health consequences. They could also lead to permanent liver damage and liver cancer.

Signs of chronic hepatitis C include:

These symptoms might affect you most of the time, or they might improve for a while and then get worse again.

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

Like acute hepatitis C, the chronic form of the condition won’t always cause clearly recognizable symptoms.

If you notice any of the above symptoms and believe you’ve been exposed to the virus, you’ll want to get tested as soon as you can.

The virus is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact.

In other words, someone with hepatitis C can transmit the virus to you if their blood comes into contact with your blood. This can happen as a result of:

  • organ transplants
  • sharing items, like razors or toothbrushes
  • sharing needles
  • childbirth (the person giving birth can pass the virus to the baby)
  • sexual contact, if blood is exchanged
  • getting a tattoo or a piercing with nonsterile equipment

You can also contract the virus again if you’ve had it before.

Before 1992, blood transfusions were considered a highly likely method of transmitting the hepatitis C virus. Due to medical advances in blood screening, you have a far lower chance of contracting the virus from a transfusion today.

You may have a higher risk for transmission if you:

  • had a blood transfusion before 1992
  • received an organ transplant before 1992
  • received clotting factor concentrates or other blood products before 1987
  • received hemodialysis treatment for a long period
  • were born to a mother with hepatitis C
  • had a sexual partner with hepatitis C
  • have used nonsterile needles

You won’t transmit hepatitis C by:

  • hugging, kissing, or touching
  • nursing your baby
  • sharing food and drinks
  • coughing and sneezing

Both acute and chronic hepatitis C infections can often be completely cured. (Remember, though, you can still contract the virus again.)

Treatment, which involves antiviral medications, can successfully cure hepatitis C 95 percent of the time. Healthcare professionals consider you cured when tests can’t detect the virus in your blood 12 weeks after treatment ends.

Not everyone with hepatitis C will need treatment. Your immune system may be able to fight the infection well enough to clear the virus from your body.

If your immune system doesn’t clear the infection, medications usually work well to treat the condition.

Past hepatitis C treatment regimens required weekly injections with many negative side effects. Newer antiviral medications are often successful at treating the virus.

These come in pill form and cause few side effects, though you’ll usually need to continue treatment for around 12 to 24 weeks.

Medications for hepatitis C

Many different medications can treat hepatitis C. Treatments most often include antivirals, with Riboviria sometimes prescribed if previous treatments were ineffective.

Medications called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) work to fully remove the hepatitis C virus from your body while helping prevent liver damage at the same time.

A few brand names of these medications include:

Researchers have identified 6 different genotypes, or strains, of hepatitis C.

Once your doctor or other healthcare professional knows your genotype, they’ll have a better idea of which medication will work best for you. Some strains have developed a resistance to some medications, so your genotype can affect your treatment options.

Symptoms alone generally don’t offer enough information for a doctor to diagnose hepatitis C. What’s more, you might not have symptoms or notice any signs of the condition.

That’s why it’s so important to connect with a doctor or other healthcare professional and ask about getting tested if you’ve been exposed to the hepatitis C virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommend hepatitis C testing for people who have abnormal liver tests, along with those who are:

A healthcare professional can order a few different tests to help diagnose hepatitis C. These include:

  • Blood tests. They may order a series of blood tests to check for the virus, starting with a hepatitis C antibody test. A PCR test can tell your healthcare professional whether the virus is currently active, and viral load testing can measure the amount of virus in your blood.
  • Genotype test. This test can reveal which hepatitis C genotype you have. This information will help your healthcare professional find an effective treatment approach.
  • Liver function test. 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 from your liver.
  • Liver biopsy. This procedure can also help check for liver damage. A biopsy involves taking a small piece of tissue from your liver and testing it for cell abnormalities.

Hepatitis C antibody test

Certain foreign substances that enter your body trigger your immune system to make antibodies. Antibodies are specifically programmed to only target the foreign substance they were made to fight.

If you’ve ever had a hepatitis C infection, your body will make hepatitis C antibodies as part of its immune response.

Your body only makes these antibodies if you have hepatitis C or had it in the past. So the hepatitis C antibody test can confirm whether you have the virus by testing for these specific antibodies.

It may take 2 to 3 months after exposure for the test to detect antibodies. If needed, your healthcare professional may order an HCV RNA test, which can detect the virus after just 1 or 2 weeks.

If the antibody test is positive, an HCV RNA test can show whether the infection is current.

While people of any gender experience the same hepatitis C symptoms, 2014 research suggested some effects of the virus may differ, depending on the sex you were assigned at birth.

Researchers noted that:

  • women have a higher chance of clearing the virus without treatment
  • liver disease may progress more rapidly in men
  • men have a higher chance of developing cirrhosis

Learn more about hepatitis C in men.

There’s one main complication of acute hepatitis C: It could become chronic.

If you go on to develop chronic hepatitis C, you could eventually experience a number of health complications, including:

  • Cirrhosis. With cirrhosis, scar tissue gradually replaces healthy tissue in your liver, blocking blood flow and disrupting liver function. Cirrhosis can eventually lead to liver failure.
  • Liver cancer. Having chronic hepatitis C raises your risk for eventually developing liver cancer. If you develop cirrhosis or your liver is very damaged before treatment, you’ll still have a higher risk for cancer after getting treated.
  • Liver (hepatic) failure. It takes a long time for your liver to fail. 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.

If you believe you contracted the hepatitis C virus, a good next step involves reaching out to a healthcare professional. Getting timely treatment can lower your risk for experiencing serious complications.

The sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner your healthcare professional can start a treatment plan.

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

Currently, the best way to protect yourself from the hepatitis C virus 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, or toothbrushes
  • not sharing needles or syringes
  • 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

Keep in mind that hepatitis C isn’t often transmitted during sex, since it’s a bloodborne infection. That said, barrier methods, like condoms, can still help reduce your chances of contracting any type of sexually transmitted infection.

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

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

If you’re more likely to contract hepatitis C than the general population, regular hepatitis C screenings can help you get early diagnosis and treatment.

If hepatitis C becomes chronic, you’ll need to get treatment as soon as possible. Chronic hepatitis C can eventually lead to complications, such as severe liver damage and liver failure, if left untreated. However, both forms of the condition can improve with treatment.