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First Symptoms of Hepatitis C in Women

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Hepatitis C is a virus that damages the liver. This virus can remain silent for months or years. The symptoms of hepatitis C in women only become noticeable after the virus has caused sufficient damage to your liver. With that in mind, here are the first symptoms of hepatitis C in women.

The First Signs and Symptoms of Hepatitis C in Women

Hepatitis C, also known as hep C or HCV, is a virus infection. The virus begins its infection with an acute phase before moving onto the chronic stage. Typically, during the acute phase, you won’t experience any symptoms. Some women may not experience hep C symptoms for months or even years after the initial date of infection.

The symptoms of hepatitis C only become evident when the virus has caused enough damage to your liver. At this point, the virus begins to disrupt the normal functioning of your liver, which can lead to the following initial signs and symptoms of hepatitis C in women:

  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • A yellow discoloration of the skin (jaundice)
  • Yellow discoloration in the eyes (also caused by jaundice)
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Itchy skin
  • Weight loss

A healthy liver will process toxins out of your body. When your liver function is disrupted, it’s no longer able to process a chemical called bilirubin. This yellow-colored chemical builds up in your body, leading to symptoms of jaundice. Jaundice is one of the most obvious symptoms of hepatitis C in women (it’s also a common symptom of hepatitis A and B).

Overall, the most common initial symptoms of hepatitis C in women are nausea, fatigue, fever, and muscle aches, followed by jaundice. These symptoms can appear 1 to 3 months after exposure to the virus. The symptoms can persist anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months.

How is Hepatitis C Transmitted?

Hepatitis C is transmitted when you come into contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected person.

Within 1 to 3 months of being exposed to the infected blood or bodily fluids, you may start to develop acute symptoms of hepatitis C. Typically, acute hepatitis C infections develop into chronic infections. However, this isn’t always the case: in 15% to 50% of cases, women will naturally eliminate the virus from their body through “spontaneous viral clearance”. That means the virus won’t develop into a more severe, chronic infection.

There are multiple types of hepatitis C genotypes. Type 1 and type 2 genotypes are the most common in North America and Europe. Other genotypes exist throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

The virus progresses in a similar way regardless of the genotype. However, doctors may prescribe different treatment methods according to your genotype.

A woman’s risk of developing a hepatitis C infection is higher if she meets the following conditions:

  • Healthcare workers, or anyone who handles bodily fluids, blood, or infected needles on a regular basis
  • Women who inject or inhale illicit drugs
  • Women with HIV
  • Women who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992, or received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
  • Women who received a piercing or tattoo in an unclean environment, using unsterile equipment
  • Women who have spent time in prison
  • Any women born between 1945 and 1965 (women and men born within these years have the highest reported incidence of hepatitis C infections)

Overall, hepatitis C is spread in a similar way to most other virus infections – including hepatitis A and B. If you come into contact with the blood or fluids of an individual infected with hepatitis C, then you’re at risk of developing hepatitis C.

General Symptoms of Hepatitis C in Women

Up above, we mentioned nausea, fatigue, and jaundice as the most common initial symptoms of hepatitis C in women. Hepatitis C is also linked to a number of other symptoms. The earlier you spot these symptoms, the sooner you can begin treatment. Some of the most common symptoms of hepatitis C in women include:

  • Bleeding easily
  • Bruising easily
  • Fatigue, including chronic tiredness that persists for days or weeks
  • Poor appetite
  • Yellow discoloration in the skin and eyes
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling in your abdomen or legs (caused by fluid buildup, or ascites)
  • Itchy skin
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech
  • Spider-like blood vessels on your skin, also known as spider angiomas

Over time, acute hepatitis C can turn into chronic hepatitis C. This can lead to more serious and devastating symptoms, including all of the following:

  • Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), which can lead to liver failure and permanent health problems
  • Liver cancer
  • Liver failure

Typically, serious liver damage (like liver cirrhosis) will not occur until after you’ve had the infection for 20 to 30 years. Interestingly, the CDC typically finds that women are less susceptible to cirrhosis than men.

As mentioned above, not all women develop noticeable signs of hepatitis C. In fact, some women progress through the early (acute) stage of a hepatitis C infection without any noticeable symptoms. Anywhere from 14 to 50% of women can clear hepatitis C from their bodies during the acute phase due to spontaneous viral clearance.

Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to visit a doctor to confirm a hepatitis C diagnosis.

What to Do If You Think You Have Hepatitis C

If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, or if you have other reasons to suspect a hepatitis C infection, then it’s important to get checked as quickly as possible. Visit your doctor to get checked.

A doctor will conduct a complete physical. The doctor will also recommend a blood test, which checks for the presence of antibodies (compounds in your blood fighting the hep C infection).

When the diagnosis is confirmed, the doctor may begin antiviral therapy. In general, antiviral therapy is very effective against a hepatitis C infection.

Frequently Asked Questions About Hepatitis C in Women

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Getting tested is not only quick and easy, it’s the only way to know for sure if you do or do not have an STD.

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Can I pass hepatitis C onto my newborn child? Women can pass the hepatitis C virus onto their baby through vaginal childbirth.

Does hep C affect women differently than men? Women generally experience liver damage more slowly than men (about half as fast). That means symptoms may take longer to appear.

Is hepatitis C treatment effective for women? Hepatitis C treatment is effective for women and men. However, it’s particularly effective for women who start treatment before menopause.

Can hepatitis C affect a woman’s reproductive health? Women with advanced liver damage typically experience changes in their menstrual cycle – like missed or shorter periods. Women may also need to adjust their birth control choices based on their hepatitis C diagnosis (a damaged liver cannot break down estrogen, for example, and estrogen is a key part of traditional birth control pills).

About Monica Silva

Monica Silva graduated from University of Michigan School of Public Health studying health behavior and health education. She is passionate about improving access to sexual and reproductive health care, and addressing gender-based violence. She was involved in reproductive health advocacy and the creation of Youth Friendly Pharmacies that provide a wide spectrum of sexual and reproductive health services.

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