Symptomatic acute hepatitis C occurs in only about 15% of patients who are infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV). Acute hepatitis C is most often diagnosed in the setting of post-exposure surveillance, or seroconversion in high-risk individuals (eg, health-care professionals or injecting drug users) previously known to be seronegative. Although transmission via transfusion and injecting drug use has declined in developed countries, unsafe blood products and medical practices continue to increase transmission of HCV in many developing countries. Clinically, acute hepatitis C can increase concentrations of alanine aminotransferase to ten times the upper limit of normal but almost never causes fulminant hepatic failure. Diagnosis of HCV infection in the acute phase is difficult since production of antibodies against HCV can be delayed by up to 12 weeks, and about a third of infected individuals might not have detectable antibody at the onset of symptoms. Therefore, testing for HCV RNA by PCR is the only reliable test for the diagnosis of acute infection. Symptomatic patients with jaundice have a higher likelihood of spontaneous viral clearance than do asymptomatic patients, and thus should be monitored for at least 12 weeks before initiating antiviral therapy. By contrast, asymptomatic patients have a much lower chance of spontaneous clearance, and might benefit from early antiviral therapy. Antiviral therapy for 12 weeks is generally effective in treating patients who are HCV RNA negative after 4 weeks of treatment; lengthier courses could be needed for those who relapse or fail to show early virological clearance.
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