Hepatitis C is a viral disease that occurs when a person contracts the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Various medications can treat hepatitis C, but the infection can lead to liver failure if a person does not receive timely treatment.

People living with hepatitis C should have support from a qualified healthcare professional who has experience treating the condition. They will need regular health assessments to maintain their health.

In this article, we look at hepatitis C in more detail, including the testing and treatment options. We also explain how someone can find a suitable doctor.

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HCV causes hepatitis C, the symptoms of which include liver inflammation, infection, and, sometimes, liver damage. As most symptoms take decades to appear, many people with HCV are not aware that they have contracted the virus. HCV spreads through contact with the blood of a person with the infection.

There are two subsets of HCV: acute and chronic. All chronic hepatitis C infections start as an acute infection, but not every acute infection becomes a chronic infection.

An acute infection rarely causes symptoms, which means that many people do not get a diagnosis at this stage. If a person does experience symptoms, these may appear between 2 weeks and 3 months after exposure to the virus. Possible symptoms include:

  • yellowing of the skin and eyes called jaundice
  • feeling tired and weak
  • nausea
  • fever
  • muscle aches

Most people with a chronic hepatitis C infection are also asymptomatic. However, in some cases, a person may notice nonspecific symptoms, such as chronic fatigue and depression.

Over time, hepatitis C can lead to chronic liver disease, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), and liver cancer. Chronic liver disease usually progresses slowly in people with an HCV infection, who often have no symptoms for many decades.

After receiving a diagnosis of hepatitis C, a person may see various types of doctors. Specialists who can help treat hepatitis C include:

  • Gastroenterologists: These doctors specialize in disorders of the stomach and intestines.
  • Hepatologists: These specialists manage problems with the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, and pancreas.
  • Infectious disease specialists: Doctors of this specialty are experts in various infectious diseases.
  • Transplant surgeons: These surgeons have special training in replacing organs that no longer work as they should.

Finding the correct doctor to treat hepatitis C first involves a visit to a primary care physician (PCP). During this consultation, the PCP will recommend the type of specialist who is most qualified to treat the individual. They can also write a referral.

Gastroenterologists and hepatologists both focus on diagnosing and treating diseases that affect the liver. Due to this, they are well-placed to treat those with significant liver damage from hepatitis C.

Infectious disease specialists can also manage HCV infections. However, although they can treat the disease itself, they may not be able to treat any liver damage.

People who have severe liver damage and need a new liver will likely need treatment from a transplant surgeon.

Before choosing a specific specialist, it is advisable to check:

  • the doctor’s experience
  • the level of satisfaction of previous patients
  • the doctor’s ability to answer questions about treatment

Other things that people should consider when choosing a doctor include their insurance coverage and how easily they can travel to the clinic.

Some people might find it helpful to seek information from patient support groups, discussion boards, and social media platforms. These allow individuals to connect with others who have hepatitis C and provide a place to share advice on treatment options.

Doctors check for hepatitis C through a blood test called an HCV antibody test.

When a person contracts HCV, their immune system releases HCV antibodies into the bloodstream. The HCV antibody test looks for the presence of these proteins.

A negative, or nonreactive, result shows that the person does not currently have an HCV infection. A positive, or reactive, result indicates that the person contracted HCV at some point.

It is important to note that a positive antibody test does not necessarily mean that the individual currently has hepatitis C. Once someone has had hepatitis C, they will always have hepatitis C antibodies.

For this reason, if a blood test returns a positive HCV result, the doctor will order another blood test to check for an active infection. This test, called the nucleic acid test (NAT), detects HCV genetic material called RNA, which will be present if the person has an active HCV infection.

A negative NAT result means that the person previously had an HCV infection but that the virus is no longer in their body. If the result is positive, the person currently has the virus in their body, and it can transmit to other people.

A person will need to receive treatment for an acute HCV infection. However, this may not be possible if they are pregnant. Experts recommend against taking HCV drugs during pregnancy, as they may damage the developing baby.

Hepatitis C treatment involves 8–12 weeks of oral medication, which cures 90% of those with hepatitis C and produces few side effects.

In people with chronic hepatitis C, the constant replication of the virus may allow it to evade the body’s immune response. As a result, these individuals could have a lifelong infection and a continued risk of advanced liver disease.

Anyone with chronic hepatitis C should visit a doctor regularly to monitor their liver health.

Hepatitis C can go away on its own, although less than half of people with an HCV infection will clear it from their body without treatment. In most cases, untreated acute hepatitis C leads to lifelong chronic hepatitis C.

Chronic hepatitis C can cause severe health issues, including cirrhosis, liver damage, liver cancer. In some cases, it can even be fatal.

Hepatitis C is a viral disease that spreads through contact with the blood of a person with the infection. As it often does not cause symptoms, a person may not be aware that they have contracted the virus.

HCV begins as an acute infection, and it is treatable with oral medication. However, an untreated acute infection could develop into chronic hepatitis C, potentially leading to severe liver damage over many decades.

People with hepatitis C can seek help from a PCP to receive a referral to a specialist. The stage of the infection will determine which specialists the doctor recommends, but a person may see a gastroenterologist, hepatologist, infectious disease specialist, or transplant surgeon.

Whether someone has an acute or chronic hepatitis C infection, they should seek urgent medical advice to begin treatment as soon as possible.