People may not show early symptoms of hepatitis C, so they can be unaware that they have the infection. However, when symptoms appear, these may be nonspecific, such as nausea, fever, and stomach pains.

As hepatitis C lingers and becomes a chronic (long-term) condition, individuals still may not have symptoms or can continue experiencing nonspecific symptoms.

Hepatitis C is a liver infection that the hepatitis C virus causes. It can range from a mild condition, lasting only a few weeks, to a serious, chronic condition.

This article discusses the early symptoms of hepatitis C and when they appear after exposure to the virus. It also examines symptoms of chronic hepatitis C and the complication of cirrhosis, as well as when to see a doctor.

Share on Pinterest
Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Many people with a new or acute infection of the hepatitis C virus tend not to have signs or symptoms.

That said, early symptoms may include:

  • fever
  • joint pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • poor appetite
  • stomach pain
  • tiredness

Early signs may include:

  • jaundice, which is a yellow color of the skin and eyes
  • dark urine
  • light-colored stools

Symptoms of acute infection can last for a short time. For most people, it can lead to a chronic condition.

Can someone with no symptoms spread hepatitis C?

Yes, even if someone does not experience symptoms, they can potentially transmit the hepatitis C virus to others.

Learn more about how hepatitis C spreads here.

Most people with chronic hepatitis C tend to either have no symptoms or present with general symptoms, such as depression and tiredness.

Eventually, many people develop chronic liver diseases, such as cirrhosis or cancer. Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver. Chronic liver disease may develop gradually over the course of several decades without manifesting symptoms until it becomes advanced.

Learn more about liver disease symptoms here.

In hepatitis C cirrhosis, the liver slowly breaks down, preventing it from functioning normally. As scar tissue gradually replaces healthy tissue, it partially blocks blood flow through the liver.

In the early stages of cirrhosis, the liver can function, but it starts to fail when the condition worsens. People may experience fewer symptoms in the earlier stages. However, by the later stages, they may experience the following:

  • vomiting of blood
  • tarry, black stools
  • internal bleeding

Advanced cirrhosis can be fatal for some people.

Learn more about the link between hepatitis C and cirrhosis here.

Without treatment, people with hepatitis C may develop serious complications, but early diagnosis and treatment can prevent them.

Because early diagnosis is important, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued the below recommendations for seeing a doctor about screening and testing for hepatitis C:

  • At least once in a lifetime, all adults should have a screening.
  • At least once, people should have a test, especially if they are at a higher risk of developing the infection. This includes those:
    • with HIV
    • who inject drugs or share needles and other drug-preparation equipment
    • who have received transfusions, blood products, or organ transplants previously
    • undergoing hemodialysis — a procedure that filters the kidneys
    • with consistently abnormal ALT levels, a substance that indicates liver cell damage
  • People with ongoing risk factors should have routine, periodic tests. For example, those receiving maintenance hemodialysis.

Following a diagnosis, a person should talk with their doctor when they have concerning symptoms that do not go away. Additionally, after treatment starts, a person should call their doctor if they experience:

  • chest discomfort
  • shortness of breath
  • swelling in the feet, ankles, or legs
  • extreme dizziness
  • vision changes
  • fever that lasts longer than 48 hours
  • blood in the stool or diarrhea that lasts longer than 48 hours

Below are some common questions and answers about early symptoms of hepatitis C infection.

Could I have hepatitis C and not know it?

Yes, this is possible. In the early stage, many people do not feel ill, so they may not know they have the infection.

Likewise, most people show no signs or symptoms in the chronic stage. For this reason, doctors usually do not catch chronic hepatitis until a person undergoes screening for a blood donation or gets atypical blood test results for hepatitis during a routine doctor’s visit.

How long before hepatitis C shows?

People who have symptoms typically experience them 2–12 weeks following exposure to the virus.

Is hepatitis C curable?

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that antiviral medication can cure more than 95% of people with hepatitis C infections.

Direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) target the hepatitis C virus and prevent replication. The course of treatment can vary from 8–24 weeks. People are also likely to experience fewer side effects than older treatment regimens.

People may not have early symptoms of hepatitis C, but when they do, they can include fever, nausea, and stomach pain. Signs may be dark urine, light-colored stools, and yellow skin and eyes.

After the condition becomes chronic, a person may sometimes show no symptoms or general symptoms, such as tiredness.

Because a person may have hepatitis C without symptoms and signs, they should take a test if they have risk factors for the infection. Such factors include injecting drugs and undergoing hemodialysis.

Testing is important because early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent serious complications of chronic hepatitis C, such as liver cancer.