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Hepatitis C Symptoms

Hepatitis C symptoms should not be ignored. Read about Hepatits C, a contagious disease that affects the liver.

A common hepatitis C symptom is energy loss and fatigue. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
A common hepatitis C symptom is energy loss and fatigue.

About Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a contagious disease that affects the liver. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 3.2 million Americans have chronic hepatitis C virus infection, but most of them don't know it.

There are five known types of hepatitis viruses, known as hepatitis A through hepatitis E. Of these, the most problematic is hepatitis C. There is no vaccination yet available and, according to the CDC, 75 to 85 percent of those infected will develop chronic infection, leading to complications such as chronic liver disease, cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Acute Hepatitis C Symptoms

Hepatitis C infection can be either acute or chronic. Acute hepatitis C is a short-term illness characterized by flu-like symptoms. Common symptoms include fever, nausea, fatigue, abdominal pain and diarrhea. In addition, because the disease affects the liver, the following symptoms can also be present: yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice), light- or clay-colored stool, and dark yellow urine.

These symptoms may occur as early as two weeks and as late as six months after exposure, although on average the symptoms appear between six and seven weeks. Although some of those affected experience these flu-like symptoms, it is more common for someone to have no outward reaction to the virus.

Chronic Hepatitis C Symptoms

According to the CDC, approximately 15 to 25 percent of those who contract hepatitis C will spontaneously fight off the disease without permanent damage. The remaining 75 to 85 percent of those who are exposed to the hepatitis C virus will develop a chronic form. Most people with chronic hepatitis C do not exhibit symptoms until liver problems have developed.

It is precisely because hepatitis C is so frequently asymptomatic that it is so dangerous. As the virus reproduces, unchecked by the immune system, it can cause serious permanent liver damage, including cirrhosis (occurring in 5 to 20 percent of patients) and liver cancer (occurring in 1 to 5 percent). The CDC estimates that between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths annually can be attributed to chronic hepatitis C viral infection.

Hepatitis C Risk Factors

Because hepatitis C is generally asymptomatic, it is important to recognize risk factors so that diagnostic testing can be conducted. The hepatitis C virus was first identified in 1989, and a screening test for blood was developed in 1992. Therefore, prior to 1992, blood transfusions were a leading cause of virus transmission. Anyone who received an organ transplant prior to 1992 is also at risk.

Because hepatitis C is transmitted through contact with infected blood, one of the most common forms of transmission is through infected needles. Injection drug users (past and present), people who get body piercings or tattoos with nonsterile instruments, and healthcare workers who have been stuck inadvertently by infected needles are at risk. The virus can also be transmitted through childbirth, sex and sharing personal items like razors or toothbrushes with an HCV-infected person.

Depending on risk factors, a doctor may order blood tests to determine whether the virus is present. In the presence of a positive test, liver enzyme levels are usually tested to determine liver functionality. Research is currently being conducted to develop a vaccination against hepatitis C.

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