HCV often does not present symptoms at its acute stage. However, the condition can escalate to a chronic stage at which potentially fatal complications can develop.
Acute hepatitis C
Acute HCV infection is rarely diagnosed due to the lack of definitive symptoms. It is often referred to as a silent epidemic. The average time frame from exposure to noticeable symptoms is between 4 and 15 weeks. During this acute period, symptoms will not seem different to those caused by any other viral syndrome. People with acute HCV will experience:
- abdominal discomfort
- joint pain
- jaundice, rarely
- clay-colored stools, rarely
Chronic hepatitis C
HCV becomes chronic when the virus remains in the blood for six months after the acute infection period. If the presence of HCV viruses is detected in testing at least twice over this period, a chronic diagnosis is confirmed. The infection will not resolve unless treated with medication. Most people experience no symptoms with chronic HCV infection. Some may experience ongoing episodes of abdominal pain, persistent fatigue, and aching joints. After 25 to 30 years, this chronic infection may result in significant scarring, or fibrosis, of the liver. If the entire liver becomes scarred, this can progress to cirrhosis, liver failure, and possibly liver cancer. The overall health of the infected individual and their liver will determine how quickly damage and possible progression to cirrhosis will occur. The genotype of the virus plays less of a role than the physical health of the person with HCV. It is not until the liver is on the verge of collapse that the extent of HCV damage is apparent.