Hepatitis C infection usually causes no symptoms until late in the course of chronic infection. In its earliest stages, beginning about one to three months after exposure to the virus, the following signs and symptoms occur in a small proportion of infected people:
- Nausea or poor appetite
- Stomach pain
- Dark-colored urine
- Yellow discoloration in the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Muscle and joint pains
Signs and symptoms of chronic infection typically become evident after years and are the result of liver damage caused by the virus. These may initially include the symptoms of acute infection. Then, over time, signs and symptoms may include:
- Bleeding easily
- Bruising easily
- Itchy skin
- Fluid accumulation in your abdomen (ascites)
- Swelling in your legs
- Weight loss
- Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Spider-like blood vessels on your skin (spider angiomas)
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any of the above signs and symptoms.
Hepatitis C infection is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV is spread when you come in contact with blood contaminated with the virus.
Your risk of hepatitis C infection is increased if you:
- Are a health care worker who has been exposed to infected blood, such as may happen if an infected needle pierces your skin
- Have ever injected or inhaled illicit drugs
- Have HIV
- Received a piercing or tattoo in an unclean environment using unsterile equipment
- Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- Received hemodialysis treatments for a long period of time
- Were born to a woman with a hepatitis C infection
- Were ever in prison
- Were born between 1945 and 1965, the age group with the highest incidence of hepatitis C infection
Hepatitis C infection that continues over many years can cause significant complications, such as:
- Scarring of the liver tissue (cirrhosis). After 20 to 30 years of hepatitis C infection, cirrhosis may occur. Scarring in your liver makes it difficult for your liver to function.
- Liver cancer. A small number of people with hepatitis C infection may develop liver cancer.
- Liver failure. A liver that is severely damaged by hepatitis C may be unable to function adequately.
Protect yourself from hepatitis C infection by taking the following precautions:
- Stop using illicit drugs. If you use illicit drugs, seek help.
- Be cautious about body piercing and tattooing. If you choose to undergo piercing or tattooing, look for a reputable shop. Ask questions beforehand about how the equipment is cleaned. Make sure the employees use sterile needles. If employees won't answer your questions, look for another shop.
- Practice safer sex. Don't engage in unprotected sex with multiple partners or with any partner whose health status is uncertain. Sexual transmission between monogamous couples may occur, but the risk is low.