What are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?

Erin J. Hill

Hepatitis C (HCV) is often asymptomatic, meaning that many individuals who have it don’t even realize it. When symptoms do appear, they are generally vague and can easily be mistaken for other illnesses. The most common early symptoms of hepatitis C are low grade fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, muscle aches, headache, and diarrhea. Eventually these symptoms can progress to more severe indications like coffee colored urine and clay-like stools. The last, and most severe, symptom is generally liver failure.

Nausea can be an early symptom of hepatitis C.
Nausea can be an early symptom of hepatitis C.

It is estimated that there are 36,000 new cases of hepatitis C each year in the United States. Up to 80% of all individuals who have shared needles while doing recreational drugs may be infected. Most of these people do not even know they are carriers of the disease because symptoms of hepatitis C often do not show up until the illness has progressed, and some carriers never get symptoms at all until liver failure occurs.

A low-grade fever and muscle aches can be early signs of hepatitis C infection.
A low-grade fever and muscle aches can be early signs of hepatitis C infection.

In the early stages, symptoms of hepatitis C are typically vague because they are commonly associated with a wide range of illnesses. Many times these symptoms do not progress in intensity and some patients still do not get tested for hepatitis. The first signs many individuals notice as being “off” are dark brown urine, yellowing of the skin or eyes, and clay-like stools.

Some patients are not diagnosed with hepatitis C until it is more progressed and liver disease has set in. Any time inflammation of the liver occurs, the patient is tested for hepatitis C. Liver disease and eventual failure are the most progressed signs of this condition and many patients do not survive when the disease is caught this late.

Since the symptoms of hepatitis C are often not caught, those who have used illegal drugs using shared needles should be tested, as well as those who received blood transfusions prior to 1987. Occasionally blood transfusions may still spread HCV, but this is very rare. Anyone who later learns that he or she received blood from an infected donor should be tested right away. Typically, patients who have elevated liver enzymes and other symptoms of liver distress will be tested automatically as a part of routine testing.

Vomiting can be an early symptom of hepatitis C.
Vomiting can be an early symptom of hepatitis C.

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