Doctors may not be able to detect that you have hepatitis C until weeks or months after you catch the virus. During this early phase, you may not feel any symptoms and your doctor may not suspect that you have this liver disease. Doctors sometimes describe this early stretch as the incubation period.
Your disease may remain in this incubation period for a long time, anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months. During the first 2-3 weeks, tests may not show signs of the virus.
You will go through the incubation phase, sometimes called the “window period,” during the early acute stage of hepatitis C.
What Happens During the Hepatitis C Incubation Period
The virus that causes hepatitis C is carried in your blood. It targets the liver during the incubation period, focusing on cells called hepatocytes. Without treatment, at least half of people who get hepatitis C will go on to have chronic hepatitis.
Since the virus is carried in the blood, you are most likely to catch it by sharing needles or other equipment when injecting drugs. Other ways you can get the virus include:
- If your mother had hepatitis C when you were born
- If you have sex with someone who has hepatitis C
- If you work in health care and get accidentally stuck by a needle
- If you get a tattoo at a place that uses unsafe practices
Are There Symptoms in the Incubation Period?
About 50,000 people in the U.S. get hepatitis C each year. But many people don’t realize it. During the early acute stage, more than 2 out of 3 people don’t feel any symptoms.
If you do have symptoms, one of the most common ones is jaundice. With jaundice, which is a sign of liver damage, you may notice that your skin or the whites of your eyes have a yellowish tinge. You may also notice other changes. Your urine may be darker. When you poop, the color may be closer to the color of clay.
Other symptoms may include:
Diagnosing Hepatitis C
If your doctor thinks you may have hepatitis C, you will get blood tests. The first test will look for signs that your body is fighting the virus. To fight an infection, such as the virus that causes hepatitis C, your body makes antibodies. So your doctor will draw your blood to check for those antibodies.
But the antibody test isn’t perfect. You may have been infected with the virus, but your body hasn’t yet made enough antibodies to be detected. Your body can take up to 6 months to make enough antibodies to be picked up by the test. Your doctor may suggest that you return later for another test.
Plus, the antibody test only reveals if you caught the virus at some point. But that doesn’t mean that you carry the virus now. To figure that out, your doctor likely will order a second blood test to check if you still have the virus in your blood. This is the “PCR viral load.”
Starting Hepatitis C Treatment
Your body may get rid of the virus before the infection becomes lifelong. One study showed that about half of people clear the virus during the early acute phase of infection. You may be more likely to clear the virus if your symptoms include jaundice, you are younger in age, or you are female.
You will need treatment only if the tests that your doctor orders detect the virus, not just the antibodies. With medication, your odds of getting rid of the virus for good are high. More than 9 out of 10 people who start treatment can be cured of the infection.