Acute vs. Chronic Hepatitis C: What’s the Difference?

Without treatment, acute hepatitis C could become chronic.

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Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can cause damage to the liver over time. Scarring on the liver (cirrhosis) increases the risk of liver cancer and liver failure. Unfortunately, many people do not catch hepatitis C when it’s in the acute stage — when it’s easier to treat.

What is acute hepatitis C?

Acute hepatitis C refers to an infection that lasts fewer than 6 months. It may go away thanks to treatment, such as direct-acting antiviral medication. Some people may be able to fight off the infection with their own immune system.

During the acute stage, hepatitis C is less likely to cause long-term damage to the liver. This is important since your liver plays many roles in your health, such as digesting food, removing harmful toxins or poisons from the digestive system, and storing energy.

Not everyone with hepatitis C has symptoms, which is what makes it hard to catch in the early stages. For people who do notice acute hepatitis C symptoms, they may include:

  • Nausea
  • Change in the color of urine or stool
  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms

What is chronic hepatitis C?

Chronic hepatitis C is an infection that lasts more than 6 months. This means that you haven’t been able to get rid of the infection with treatment or your immune system. Many people who have chronic hepatitis C simply didn’t get diagnosed with the infection when it was in the acute stage.

Why is chronic hepatitis C dangerous?

The longer you live with chronic hepatitis C, the more damage it can potentially do. First, the inflammation in the area may cause liver scarring, known as cirrhosis. This causes cells in the liver to not function as well as they should.

Cirrhosis may progress until the entire liver is not working. This is called liver failure (or end-stage liver disease). Liver scarring can also increase the risk of liver cancer.

How do doctors treat hepatitis C?

Doctors treat acute and chronic hepatitis C the same way. The treatment for this infection is called direct-acting antiviral medication. These medications are very effective, easy to take, and cause few side effects.

The treatment for hepatitis C takes about eight to 12 weeks. The vast majority of people who take direct-acting antiviral medications are cured within six months.

If hepatitis C has progressed to liver failure, treatment may include a liver transplant. That’s because you cannot live without a functioning liver.

Talk to your doctor to learn more information about testing guidelines for hepatitis C. All adults should receive at least one hepatitis C test in their lifetime, but if you have certain risk factors, you may need additional testing.