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STDWatch
Dr. Patricia Shelton

Dec 02, 20227 min read

Hepatitis C: Symptoms, Causes, and Tests

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Hepatitis C, sometimes simply known as “hep C,” is a viral illness that causes liver failure. It can be transmitted through sharing of certain bodily fluids. Although this virus causes severe symptoms and can even be fatal in its later stages, many people don’t have any symptoms at all early in the course of the infection, and often don’t realize that they’re infected.

What should you know about hepatitis C? What are the hepatitis C symptoms and causes?

Causes of hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is caused by a virus. It’s known as the hepatitis C virus, or HCV.

The hepatitis C virus can be transmitted through the exchange of certain bodily fluids, including blood and sexual fluids. The most common way that it spreads is through sharing equipment for injecting drugs. Getting a tattoo from a place that doesn’t properly clean their equipment could also transmit the virus. Healthcare workers may be at risk, if they get stuck with a needle that’s contaminated with an infected person’s blood. Sharing personal items that may come into contact with blood, such as razors, can also transmit it.

Unprotected sex can also cause the transmission of hepatitis C. This can include vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

Early symptoms of hep C

In its later stages, hepatitis C can lead to liver failure, which can be fatal. It also significantly increases the risk of liver cancer. Symptoms in the later stages may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Bleeding or bruising easily
  • Itchy skin
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen
  • Swelling of the legs
  • Weight loss
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness

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These are symptoms of liver failure, and they indicate that the virus has caused severe damage to the liver. People who have had chronic viral hepatitis C for years often end up with these symptoms.

Up until the point where it causes liver failure, hepatitis C is often a silent infection. Up to half of all people with the virus don’t even realize that they’re infected. However, when you first get the virus, there can sometimes be symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Muscle or joint aches
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Dark urine
  • Pale stool

These symptoms can occur anywhere from 2 to 12 weeks after you get infected. However, not everyone experiences these symptoms. Many people don’t feel sick at all when they first get hepatitis C. Infectious disease causes of liver damage also include hepatitis B, which causes the same symptoms.

Hepatitis C prevention

The best way to prevent yourself from getting hepatitis C is to avoid exchanging bodily fluids with others. The most common way that it spreads is through blood to blood contact. It’s also important to avoid sharing needles or other drug injection equipment with anyone else. 

Hepatitis C can also spread through unprotected sex. If you’re not in a mutually monogamous sexual relationship, then using condoms every time you have sex will decrease your risk of getting hepatitis C. Most cases occur among men who have sex with men, but anyone can potentially get hepatitis C through unprotected sex.

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Babies cannot get hepatitis C from their mothers through breastmilk. If you have hepatitis C, this doesn’t have to stop you from breastfeeding your baby. However, hepatitis C can spread from mother to baby during the pregnancy, so it’s important to get good prenatal care to help keep your baby safe.

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How to know if you have hepatitis C

It’s not possible to diagnose hepatitis C based on the symptoms alone. The symptoms may strongly suggest a liver disease, but they can’t show which one it may be. Additionally, many people don’t have any symptoms until late in the course of the disease.

The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is through a blood test. This can be done at home, or it can be ordered by your doctor. If you test positive for hepatitis C (meaning that you do have the virus), then you’ll likely need additional blood tests to assess the condition of your liver.

FAQs

Are there specific female hepatitis C symptoms?

The symptoms of hepatitis C don’t differ between men and women. However, there are a few special considerations for women with hepatitis C. One is that the virus can be transmitted through menstrual blood, so it’s important for a woman with the virus to be careful about disposing of menstrual products safely. Another consideration is that it can be transmitted to her baby during pregnancy. Prenatal care can help to reduce this risk.

Are there specific male hepatitis C symptoms?

Men and women have the same symptoms of hepatitis C. Even though it can be a sexually transmitted disease, this virus primarily affects the liver rather than the sexual organs, so the symptoms are the same for people of any gender.

What hepatitis C tests are available?

The diagnosis of hepatitis C requires a blood test. You can get this by visiting your doctor, or you can order your test yourself at home. There are test kits available that allow you to take your own blood sample at home using a fingerprick. For those who prefer not to draw their own blood, you can still order your own test, and then visit a lab to have your blood drawn.

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Sources

Hepatitis C. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/index.htm. Accessed 7 Sep 2022.

Hepatitis B or C Infections. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/maternal-or-infant-illnesses/hepatitis.html. Accessed 7 Sep 2022.

Hepatitis C. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hepatitis-c/symptoms-causes/syc-20354278. Accessed 7 Sep 2022.



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