A person can have hepatitis C with no symptoms. Liver enzyme tests can help detect and diagnose a hepatitis C infection by showing liver damage and inflammation.

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease resulting from an infection with the hepatitis C virus. The infection invades liver cells, leading to inflammation, swelling, liver dysfunction, and eventual damage to the organ. It can cause cirrhosis, which refers to scarring of the liver, as well as liver failure and liver cancer.

People contract hepatitis C via blood-to-blood contact, including through sharing needles, shaving equipment, or improperly sterilized tattoo or piercing equipment.

Early diagnosis of hepatitis can prevent liver damage, but without treatment, an infection can be life threatening. Liver enzymes can aid diagnosis by detecting liver function issues and damage.

This article will explore how hepatitis C affects liver enzymes, how doctors use enzyme tests to diagnose hepatitis C, and hepatitis C symptoms and treatments.

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Hepatitis C infections can affect a person’s liver enzymes. Liver enzyme tests can help diagnose a hepatitis C infection in someone without symptoms.

In the acute phase of hepatitis C, a person may experience a significant increase in liver enzymes. This may also accompany symptoms and flu-like illness. In the case of chronic hepatitis C, there may be minimal or no symptoms.

When a hepatitis infection is present, a person’s aspartate aminotransferase (AST) and alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels can be 20–50 times higher than usual.

Many people first get a diagnosis of hepatitis C during the screening process to donate blood or while getting routine blood tests.

Learn more about hepatitis C.

Liver enzyme tests for hepatitis C typically focus on ALT and AST.

However, ALT enzyme levels offer healthcare professionals more information about liver function than AST levels. This is because a person’s elevated AST levels may also increase if muscle damage has occurred elsewhere in the body.

Doctors may also order other blood tests to evaluate liver function, including:

If doctors believe a person may have hepatitis C, they may order a liver function test. Liver function tests detect ALT and AST levels in the blood, which are markers of liver cell damage.

When the liver becomes damaged, it releases ALT and AST into the bloodstream. Elevated ALT and AST levels may indicate a hepatitis C infection.

However, in most cases of chronic hepatitis C, liver function test results tend to vary. These levels may fluctuate over just a few days from typical to noticeably increased. A high ALT level often means the liver has some damage, though not necessarily from hepatitis C.

ALT does not measure the amount of damage to the liver. Additionally, changes to a person’s ALT levels do not mean the liver is functioning better or worse.

ALT level does not indicate the level of fibrosis, which refers to scarring, or predict how much liver damage will develop. An average ALT level does not necessarily mean that treatment has been effective in curing a hepatitis C infection.

Learn more about liver function tests.

Early and late stage symptoms of hepatitis C can vary from person to person.

Early symptoms

In addition to elevated liver enzymes, early symptoms of a hepatitis C infection can include:

Many people with a new hepatitis C infection do not have obvious symptoms.

Later stage symptoms

Later stage or chronic symptoms of hepatitis C include:

Doctors can successfully treat most cases of chronic and acute hepatitis C using oral therapy.

Drugs with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to treat hepatitis C include:

  • elbasvir and grazoprevir (Zepatier)
  • glecaprevir and pibrentasvir (Mavyret)
  • ledipasvir and sofosbuvir (Harvoni)
  • peginterferon alfa-2a (Pegasys)
  • sofosbuvir (Sovaldi)

Specific medication and treatment duration may vary depending on the particular genotype of the virus. According to a 2019 study, 1a is the most common hepatitis C genotype in American adults.

Hepatitis C is a contagious disease resulting from infection with the hepatitis C virus. Without treatment, hepatitis C can lead to severe complications, such as liver failure or death.

Liver enzyme tests can help doctors detect damage to the liver potentially resulting from a hepatitis C infection. Early diagnosis is essential to avoid complications.

Treatment for hepatitis C typically involves oral medications.