The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a liver disease caused by a viral infection. If it’s left untreated, the virus can lead to serious liver damage. HCV is a blood-borne disease that’s most often transmitted through shared needles used to inject drugs. HCV can also be transmitted through tainted blood products. Since blood donation screenings became stricter in 1992, this is less of a problem these days.

In most cases, HCV is a long-term problem, but cure rates are improving. The majority of HCV cases are chronic. This means they’ll persist until treatment knocks out the virus completely.

Acute HCV appears much sooner with obvious symptoms. Unlike chronic HCV, the acute version of the illness is more responsive to traditional treatments. In rare cases, acute HCV can resolve without treatment.

One of the challenges of HCV is that it can take months before the virus is discovered through testing. That’s because the incubation period for the hepatitis C virus varies greatly from person-to-person.

Incubation Period

Incubation refers to the time between your first contact with the virus and the first signs of the disease.

Unlike the flu virus, which has an incubation period of less than a week, incubation for chronic HCV can take between 14 to 180 days. The incubation for acute hepatitis C is typically about six to 10 weeks.

The incubation period of HCV differs from that of other types of hepatitis. The incubation period for hepatitis A (HAV) is 15 to 50 days. The incubation period for hepatitis B (HBV) is 45 to 160 days.

Part of the reason for the differences in incubation periods may be due to the nature of the diseases and they way they’re transmitted. HAV, for example, is transmitted through the ingestion of fecal matter. A microscopic bit of fecal matter can be transmitted through close contact or sexual contact with an infected person. It can also be transmitted through the consumption of food or beverages that are contaminated.

HBV travels through contact with bodily fluids, including blood and semen. Sharing needles or having sexual contact with an infected person can allow the virus to spread. A baby born to an infected mother is also at a high risk of contracting the virus.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

A small percentage of people with HCV develop noticeable symptoms within a few months after incubation. These include:

  • jaundice
  • dark urine
  • muscle pain
  • abdominal pain
  • itchiness of the skin
  • nausea
  • fever
  • fatigue

If the virus remains undetected and untreated, those symptoms plus others are more likely to appear years after incubation. Other signs and symptoms include:

  • fluid retention in your abdomen
  • swelling in the legs
  • bleeding problems
  • bruising problems
  • weight loss
  • mental confusion

Unfortunately, by the time these signs appear, liver damage may be severe. That’s why it’s important to get screened as soon as possible.

Treatment Options

The drug interferon has long been the primary treatment for HCV. It requires several injections for up to a year. Interferon also tends to produce symptoms, so you feel like you have the flu after treatment. An oral drug, ribavirin, was also available to treat HCV, but it had to be taken with interferon injections.

Newer oral medications are proving to be very effective at treating HCV. Among them are sofosbuvir (Sovaldi), which doesn’t require interferon injections to be effective.

Additional drugs for this condition that were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2014 and 2015 include:

How to Prevent Hepatitis C

HCV can potentially lead to cirrhosis of the liver and even liver failure, but it’s not a complicated illness to prevent. The following are some ways to prevent getting hepatitis C:

  • If you have a history of illicit drug use, get help in trying to quit. Avoiding contact with needles used by others is perhaps the biggest single step you can take to prevent infection or even reinfection.
  • If you’re a healthcare worker, always practice universal precautions, especially when handling used needles, syringes, and blades.
  • Also, be careful getting tattoos, as any infected needle can transmit the virus.

When to See a Doctor

If you think there’s any chance you were exposed to the virus, you should get tested. If you were born between 1945 and 1965, it’s recommended that you get tested at least once. The same is true for anyone who has injected drugs even if it was a long time ago. You should also be tested if you’re HIV-positive or if you received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992.

This is wise particularly because you may have the virus but have no obvious symptoms. The long incubation period for HCV can give individuals a false sense of security. There can be a long time between the risky behavior and any indications of disease. So talk with your doctor about getting tested, especially if you have symptoms. A simple blood test may be all you need for some peace of mind.