Hepatitis C: Symptoms

Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which attacks the liver. The disease usually progresses slowly, with few signs or symptoms for decades. That's why many cases of the disease go undiagnosed. Sometimes the disease is discovered during a routine checkup, or when a person with hepatitis C tries to give blood and it is screened for HCV. Most people with hepatitis C, however, live with the virus for years without knowing it. In these cases, the disease is only discovered when symptoms of chronic liver disease, such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer, finally set in.

Early symptoms of liver disease caused by chronic hepatitis C include:

  • Fatigue. Exhaustion is the most commonly reported symptom. Doctors think this has to do with your impaired immune system, pain and stress. Fatigue is also a common side effect of some medication used to treat hepatitis C.
  • Abdominal pain. You may experience mild discomfort or tenderness on the right side of your abdomen where your liver is located.
  • Nausea or vomiting. When your liver does not work properly, waste products may build up in your blood, causing these symptoms.
  • Muscle and joint pain. A build-up of waste products in your blood also can lead to body aches.
  • Fever. Often persistent and low-grade.
  • Itching. If your liver is not working well, you may feel a general sense of itchiness.

Later symptoms of liver disease caused by chronic hepatitis C:

  • Dark urine. Your urine may look dark brown, like the color of coffee.
  • Light-colored stool. Your stool may appear lighter in color, like clay.
  • Jaundice. An inflamed liver doesn't work well, so a waste product called bilirubin builds up, causing your skin and eyes to turn a yellowish color.
  • Swollen abdomen or ankles. If cirrhosis of the liver sets in, the kidneys can begin to retain salt and water. Commonly, it appears as edema, a build-up of extra fluid, around the feet and ankles or in the abdomen, where it's called ascites.
  • Bruising. You may bruise more easily.
  • Muscle weakness. This symptom is not limited to one specific part of your body.

Studies show that early treatment of acute hepatitis C can prevent chronic liver disease. If you think you've been exposed to HCV or if you're experiencing any of the symptoms associated with hepatitis C, be sure to talk to you doctor about how you are feeling. If you develop chronic hepatitis C, it's vital for you to discuss any symptom changes with your doctor to determine if your treatment needs to be adjusted.