Although acute hepatitis C often leads to a more severe form of infection known as chronic hepatitis C, this is not always the case. Some people clear the virus from their bodies and are cured.
Many people with acute hepatitis C are unaware that they have the disease because it usually causes no symptoms.
In this article, we take a look at the symptoms that can appear, how the disease is transmitted, and what treatment is available.
Acute vs. chronic hepatitis C
Acute hepatitis C can be a short-term problem, while chronic hepatitis C may have a long-term impact.
Acute hepatitis C is a short-term disease that occurs in the first 2 weeks to 6 months of a person becoming infected with HCV.
Around 20−40 percent of people who get the virus clear it from their body during this period and become cured.
For most people, however, the virus remains in their body, and they develop chronic hepatitis C.
The chronic disease is serious and can lead to long-term liver problems, such as scarring, liver failure, cancer, or even death.
Around 70–80 percent of people with acute hepatitis C have no symptoms.
On the other hand, some individuals can have mild to severe symptoms soon after they become infected. Symptoms usually appear 6–7 weeks after infection and may include:
- whites of the eyes and the skin becoming yellowish
- low-grade fever
- dark urine
- weight loss
- pain in the upper right side of the abdomen
- stools with white or clay color
- loss of appetite
- joint pain
Causes and transmission
Sharp objects, including needlesticks and syringes, may spread HCV.
Acute hepatitis C can occur after someone is exposed to HCV through one of a variety of different routes.
The main route of transmission is through contact with the blood of an infected person when needles are shared to inject drugs.
Some people, especially healthcare workers, can also become infected through:
- injuries from needlesticks or other sharp objects
- other contaminated equipment
HCV can also be passed from a mother to her unborn child.
Although less frequent routes for transmission, a person can also get hepatitis C by:
- sharing personal care objects, such as razors or toothbrushes
- having a tattoo or a piercing with unsterilized, contaminated material
- having sexual contact with a person who has the virus
HCV is not transmitted by kissing, hugging, coughing, sneezing, holding hands, sharing eating utensils, or breast-feeding. It is also not transmitted through food or water.
When to see a doctor
A person should see a doctor to get tested for hepatitis C if they:
- have recently been in contact with blood from a person with the virus
- have liver disease or abnormal liver test results
- are a current or former injection drug user, even if they injected only once or many years ago
- have HIV
Healthcare workers who have been in contact with blood from patients through a needlestick or other sharp object injury should also consider testing.
A diagnosis of hepatitis C is made through blood tests.
An initial blood test can be carried out to look for antibodies to HCV. Antibodies are proteins that the immune system produces against foreign substances in the body, such as viruses or bacteria.
A second test can be performed to look for the genetic material of the virus and confirm the results of the first test.
If the diagnosis of hepatitis C is positive, the doctor may ask for a further test to check the levels of liver enzymes and to see how much the disease has damaged the liver.
This test can help to distinguish between acute and chronic hepatitis C and point the doctor toward the best treatment option for that person.
Acute hepatitis C is a disease that can be treated. Treatment aims to reduce a person's risk of developing chronic hepatitis C and transmitting the virus to someone else, as well as improving their symptoms.
However, as acute hepatitis C usually causes no symptoms, many people do not get diagnosed or treated.
The best way to treat acute hepatitis C and at what point treatment should begin is still not completely clear.
Some doctors may choose to delay treatment during the first 6 months after diagnosis, to see if the body clears the virus. If it does, treatment is not recommended.
If the doctor decides to start treatment after the first 6 months of infection, recommendations are the same as for chronic hepatitis C.
Medications may include:
- Pegylated interferon (pegIFN): This can improve the body's natural response to infections and other diseases.
- Ribavirin: This drug works by stopping the hepatitis C virus from multiplying and spreading inside the body.
- Direct-acting antivirals (DAAs): These block specific steps of the hepatitis C virus life cycle, preventing the virus from multiplying.
People who receive treatment for acute hepatitis C can be given one or more of these medications for a period that can go up to 24 weeks.
A nurse or healthcare practitioner who works with blood has a higher risk of HCV than other professions.
A person has a higher chance of getting hepatitis C if they:
- have injected drugs in the past
- are a healthcare worker working with blood from patients
- have a sexually transmitted disease, including HIV
- were born from a mother with hepatitis C
The following people also have an increased risk of getting hepatitis C, although the increase is much lower than with the factors above:
- people who receive donated blood, blood products, or organs
- people who have sexual contact with a person who has the virus
- people who have several sexual partners
- people who get a tattoo or piercing with non-sterile equipment
- people who share personal care objects, such as razors or toothbrushes
There is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, although it is being investigated. The best preventive measures are as follows:
- not sharing needles or personal care items
- avoiding direct exposure to blood or blood products
- practicing sex with a condom
- ensuring all equipment has been sterilized when having a tattoo or piercing
Researchers suggest that starting treatment with DAAs early could serve as a preventive measure, reducing the risk of hepatitis C transmission. Further studies continue to be carried out to test this theory.
Around 20−40 percent of people who get HCV will clear it from their body without treatment and will not develop the more severe chronic hepatitis C. Those who develop chronic hepatitis C usually have a mild clinical progression.
Since people with acute hepatitis C typically show no symptoms, an early diagnosis is the best way to prevent both the spread of the disease and the progression to its more serious chronic form.