woman with headache

Hepatitis C is a stubborn but common virus that attacks the liver. About 3.5 million people in the United States have chronic (long-term) hepatitis C.

The human immune system is good at fighting off bacterial infections and the myriad viruses that cause the common cold. But it can’t easily kill the hepatitis C virus. Fortunately, there are drugs available and in the works to treat hepatitis C.

Read on to learn more about hepatitis C treatments and their side effects.

Treatment Options

There are several effective antiviral drugs available for hepatitis C. 

Interferon is a protein produced naturally in the body. The synthetic version is taken by injection once a week. It stimulates the immune system to neutralize or destroy the hepatitis C virus.

Ribavirin is a drug taken by mouth once a day. It fights certain viruses, including hepatitis C. 

Boceprevir is an anti-viral drug that works by stopping the hepatitis C virus from replicating. It’s used in combination with either interferon or ribavirin. 

Ledipasvir/sofosbuvir (Harvoni) is a fixed dose combination drug for certain types of Hepatitis C. 

Treatment Side Effects

Hepatitis C drugs cause side effects, most commonly a flu-like reaction that goes away after a few weeks. Most of the side effects aren’t life-threatening. However, it can be difficult to tolerate the side effects for the full course of treatment, which lasts from six months to a year. Being knowledgeable about your treatment and its side effects can help you manage them. 

The most common physical side effects from hepatitis C drugs include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • fatigue
  • nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • dry mouth, thick saliva, and mouth ulcers
  • poor appetite

While being treated for hepatitis C, it’s important to be in good health. You should eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet and make sure to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. 

Hepatitis C drugs may also cause side effects that affect your mental health. These include:

  • poor sleep or insomnia
  • anxiety
  • being irritable or short-tempered
  • low mood or depression 

Interferon stimulates certain parts of the body, sometimes making it difficult to sleep. Lack of good sleep and rest may cause other problems such as anxiety, being short-tempered or feeling sad. 

Talk to your doctor about ways to improve your sleep. Keeping a regular sleep schedule, learning relaxation techniques, timing your medications, and talking to others about how you’re feeling—both physically and mentally—can help.

Other Potential Side Effects

Treating hepatitis C can cause other side effects, including:

  • injection-site reactions
  • hair loss
  • skin rashes 

Hair loss is common for those taking interferon. Once treatment ends, your hair will grow back. 

Skin rashes from ribavirin may come and go, mainly on the body and arms. Cool baths and skin lotions can help. You can reduce injection-site reactions by changing the injection spot and applying an ice pack. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about these problems. 

When to Call Your Doctor

Although it doesn’t happen very often, hepatitis C drugs may cause serious side effects. It’s important to learn what they are so you can identify them and get immediate medical help. Serious side effects include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • vision changes
  • thyroid problems 

Any of these side effects can be potentially serious. Speak with your doctor about how you’re feeling and don’t hesitate to go to the emergency room if necessary. 

Managing hepatitis C is a team effort. You, your doctor, nurses, physician’s assistants, phlebotomists, and lab technicians should work together to get rid of the virus quickly. It’s important to check in with your healthcare team often to let them know how your therapy is going and how you’re feeling. Hepatitis C is a serious disease that takes time and effort to get under control, but doing so may save your life.