Living With Hepatitis C
In recent years, living with hepatitis C has changed drastically. In fact, if you find out you have hepatitis C, you may not have to live with it for very long at all.
Today’s medication regimens can cure over 95% of people. And the drugs are easier to take and tolerate than ever before. But you can’t be cured if you don’t know you have it.
Because it usually doesn’t cause symptoms, most people with the disease don’t know it. This means there are many people living with hepatitis C without treatment of any kind. Without treatment for chronic hepatitis C, the disease can eventually progress to liver damage, cirrhosis, and end-stage liver disease. By the time chronic hepatitis C symptoms appear, liver damage is already occurring. So, it is to your advantage to find out your status before any problems develop.
Who needs to get tested? Baby boomers are the largest group of people with hepatitis C. Three out of every four people with hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965. Experts don’t fully understand why this group is at such high risk. They think most infected baby boomers contracted the virus between the 1960s and 1980s. During this time, infection control and blood product screening procedures were not universal. And even one episode of sharing needles to inject drugs could have spread the virus.
In addition to baby boomers, other groups of people who need screening according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) include:
- Children born to mothers with hepatitis C
- Current or former injection drug users
- Long-term hemodialysis patients
- People with HIV
- People with known exposures to the virus
- Recipients of blood transfusions or solid organ transplants before 1992 and recipients of clotting factor concentrates before 1987
If you test positive for hepatitis C, it’s not time to panic, but it is time to start planning. Current guidelines recommend treatment for almost all people with chronic hepatitis C. But you will need additional testing to guide your treatment options. Seeing a hepatitis C expert is the best way to make sure you get the most effective treatment. Doctors who treat hepatitis C include hepatologists, gastroenterologists, and infectious disease specialists.
Standard treatment today is vastly different from the past. For people new to treatment, it consists of a two-drug combination tablet you take by mouth. Treatment can take as little as 8 to 12 weeks and the cure rate approaches 100% for some regimens. Today’s drugs are also easier to tolerate than older drugs. They have fewer side effects and when side effects do occur, they aren’t as severe. Talk with your doctor about your choices.
Once hepatitis C treatment is complete, you still need to see your hepatitis C specialist. Depending on the amount of liver damage you have, you may still need medical care.
While your liver battles hepatitis C, you need to give it extra care. When you find out you have hepatitis C, stop drinking alcohol. Alcohol can worsen liver damage and scarring from hepatitis C. It isn’t clear whether it’s safe to start drinking again after chronic hepatitis C cure. Even though you no longer have the virus in your blood, the effects on your liver can last for years. And while curing hepatitis C reduces the risk of liver cancer, your risk is not as low as someone who never had hepatitis C. In fact, alcohol use is a risk factor for developing liver cancer after hepatitis C cure. So, the safest course of action is to avoid alcohol altogether.
You also need to avoid medications that can contribute to liver damage. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is an example, but there are many others. Tell your hepatitis C specialist about all of your medicines, including prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, supplements, and herbal remedies. Find out which ones are safe and which ones you need to avoid. Check with your hepatitis C specialist before starting any new medicines as well.
While you are contagious, you need to protect others from contracting hepatitis C from you. This means avoiding exposing people to your blood and other bodily fluids. Cover cuts and open sores. Do not share items that could be contaminated with your blood, such as razors and manicure tools. Women need to safely dispose of feminine products.
You also need to protect your sex partner. Sexual transmission is low for hepatitis C, especially for people in monogamous, long-term relationships. However, people in new relationships or those with multiple sex partners should always use latex condoms.
Once you have achieved a cure after treatment, you are no longer contagious. Talk with your hepatitis C specialist to find out if you need to follow any further precautions after a cure. Keep in mind, even though you aren’t contagious, you will not be able to donate blood.
Unfortunately, having hepatitis C doesn’t make you immune to it. It is possible to get hepatitis C again. This means you need to protect yourself from future exposure to the virus. The precautions are the same as those for protecting others from getting it from you. Avoid contact with blood or items that could have blood on them. If you use injection drugs, never share needles and get help to stop using. Practice safe sex unless you are in a monogamous, long-term relationship. Finally, see your hepatitis C specialist regularly to stay on top of your liver’s health.