Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes inflammation of the liver. Without treatment, the virus can lead to complications, such as scarring and long term liver damage. This damage, in turn, increases the risk of liver cancer.

The hepatitis C virus (HCV) primarily spreads between people through contact with contaminated blood.

After contracting the virus, a person experiences an acute infection that may last up to 6 months. This phase is usually asymptomatic. In some cases, a person can fight off and clear the infection without treatment. However, about 75–85% of people with acute HCV go on to develop a long lasting infection, which is called chronic HCV.

Often, people who have chronic HCV do not experience symptoms until they have developed extensive liver damage. Therefore, it is important that people at risk of contracting HCV undergo screening to check for the virus.

Hepatitis C is often curable if a person receives treatment during its early stages. Treatment also helps prevent liver damage and associated health complications.

Keep reading to learn more about the potential complications of hepatitis C and when to see a doctor.

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Complications of hepatitis C can include fatigue and fever.

Hepatitis C can remain undiagnosed for a long time because people often do not experience symptoms until they have developed severe liver damage.

However, some possible symptoms that may develop in the first 1–3 months include:

Most people who do not receive treatment for acute HCV go on to develop chronic HCV. A person with chronic HCV may experience the following complications.

Liver disease

Liver disease is a multistage process that begins with inflammation of the liver and can take a long time to progress. Chronic inflammation damages the liver and causes a buildup of scar tissue within the organ, which is called fibrosis.

As the scar tissue grows, it replaces healthy liver tissue, and this results in the liver becoming increasingly less able to function.

Over time, fibrosis may lead to more extensive and severe liver scarring, called cirrhosis. In a person with cirrhosis, the liver functions very poorly or not at all.

Hepatitis C is one of several conditions that can cause cirrhosis. Other risk factors include:

Some people who have cirrhosis may not experience symptoms for some time. Others may experience the following:

  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • nausea
  • extreme feelings of weakness or tiredness
  • spider shaped blood vessels appearing under the skin
  • severe itching
  • swelling of the abdomen
  • confusion

Liver failure

Black stool is a possible sign of liver failure.Share on Pinterest
Black stool is a possible sign of liver failure.

If a person has liver failure, this means that their liver has lost its ability to function. Liver failure is a life threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention.

When liver failure occurs as a result of cirrhosis, doctors sometimes refer to it as end stage liver disease (ESLD). In some cases, it can take months, years, or even decades for a person to develop ESLD.

The first symptoms of liver failure often include:

As liver failure progresses, a person may notice the following symptoms:

Liver cancer

Chronic hepatitis C infection increases a person’s risk of developing liver cancer. Even after HCV treatment, a person who has severe liver damage remains at increased risk of developing liver cancer.

Symptoms of liver cancer include:

  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • feeling full after a small meal
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • ascites
  • pain in the abdomen
  • enlarged liver, which may cause a sense of fullness beneath the ribs on the right side
  • enlarged spleen, which a person may feel as a fullness beneath the ribs on the left side
  • pain near the right shoulder blade
  • itching
  • jaundice

Other symptoms may include:

  • fever
  • abnormal skin bruising or bleeding
  • enlarged veins on the belly

People who develop liver cancer as a result of hepatitis C may notice a general worsening of their symptoms. Doctors may also detect changes in the person’s liver function tests.

Some experts recommend that people with cirrhosis undergo screening for liver cancer every 6 months. Screening consists of blood tests and ultrasound scans of the liver. According to the American Cancer Society, this screening procedure may improve survival from liver cancer.

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Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the risk of complications.

Hepatitis C may not cause symptoms until decades after a person contracted the virus. Often, a person only discovers that they have HCV after a routine blood screening, which makes it difficult to treat HCV in the early stages.

However, certain groups of people have a higher risk of developing HCV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), screening is particularly important for people who:

  • have ever used injected drugs
  • received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
  • received a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to July 1992
  • received blood transfusions from a person who later tested positive for hepatitis C
  • are healthcare workers who have had exposure to HCV-positive blood
  • are the biological children of a mother who is HCV-positive
  • are living with HIV
  • have been on long term hemodialysis
  • have persistently abnormal levels of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) in the blood

The CDC also recommend a one-time screening for anyone born between the years 1945 and 1965, as these individuals are more likely to have undiagnosed hepatitis C.

A person should also see their doctor if they experience any unusual symptoms, such as jaundice, loss of appetite, or unexplained weight loss. The doctor will run tests to check whether the individual has hepatitis C or another condition that causes similar symptoms.

People who have cirrhosis as a result of hepatitis C should also request a screening for liver cancer. Early diagnosis and treatment of cancer usually give people a better chance of survival.

Hepatitis C can cause severe and life threatening health complications. Unfortunately, many people only discover that they have HCV after developing symptoms of severe liver damage.

People with a higher risk of HCV should see a doctor. The doctor will carry out a blood test to check whether the person has HCV. Some people may require screening more regularly than others. Examples include certain healthcare professionals and people who use injected drugs.

Early detection and treatment of HCV help prevent liver damage and related complications.