The liver is truly the unsung hero in the human body. Your liver’s hundreds of vital functions include filtering toxins you breathe and eat, storing sugars and vitamins your body needs for energy, and helping your immune system prevent and fend off infections. You can’t survive without an efficient liver. But hepatitis C threatens your liver health.
Acute vs chronic hep C
Hepatitis C is considered acute when you’re infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) for only a short time. Symptoms of acute hepatitis C can last for up to six months, but will usually resolve without treatment. Your immune system is often sufficient in fighting off acute HCV.
When your immune system is unable to fight off HCV, hepatitis C can become chronic. HCV can damage bile ducts, compromising delivery of nutrients to your intestines. Over years, HCV’s chronic damage leaves scar tissue that blocks blood flow through your liver.
Medications to treat chronic hepatitis C aim to slow scarring of liver tissue, lower viral inflammation, and prevent cirrhosis, which occurs when the liver becomes scarred and functions poorly. If medications don’t work and your liver begins to fail, you may need to talk to your doctor about a liver transplant. This amount of liver damage takes around 20 years to develop.
What your doctor needs to know
Your hepatologist, infectious disease specialist, or gastroenterologist will determine if you’re a candidate for a liver transplant. To choose liver recipients, doctors consider a person’s current medical tests, health history, and support system. They want to be confident your immune system, heart, and lungs are strong, and that your postoperative care is in place. Your doctor and the transplant center team want your body to have the best chance of accepting the new organ.
What you need to know
A liver can come from a recently deceased person or a living donor. In fact, most organ donations are from deceased people. In the case of a cadaver donor, the recipient receives a whole, healthy liver.
If liver tissue comes from a living donor, doctors remove and transplant just part of the donor’s liver. Because liver cells regenerate, both you and your donor will eventually have functioning livers. If your donor is living, your operations would occur simultaneously.
Ask how long you might have to wait for a transplant and how to keep your liver functioning as effectively as possible until your transplant.
More questions to ask
You’ll have plenty of questions to ask your doctor about your transplant surgery. Some questions you should ask are:
- What lifelong medications will I need to help my body accept the new liver?
- What are the side effects of the operation?
- What is the best way to prevent infection?
- What is a realistic recovery time?
- What can I expect to happen at the transplant center?
- How does my hepatitis C affect my survival chances?
Managing your new liver
In order to maintain quality of life, you should avoid infection, follow antirejection procedures, and change your lifestyle. Your medical team will recommend how best to do this. Make sure to keep follow-up appointments with your transplant team and primary doctor so that they can monitor your new liver’s efficiency.
Although a liver transplant isn’t a cure for hepatitis C, it can prolong your life. Statistics and science are on your side, especially if you do your part.
Most liver transplants in the United States are due to cirrhosis caused by hepatitis C. In the U.S., 3.9 million people are infected with the hepatitis C virus, and nearly 70 percent of them experience chronic symptoms. Between 17 and 29 percent of people with chronic hepatitis C experience cirrhosis.
The numbers also show that most often, the hepatitis C virus persists in people after their operation.
A successful organ transplant allows you to live longer than your diseased liver would have allowed. For how long and with what quality of life? These unknowns depend on many factors, including your age and overall health. Because each case is different, predictions are difficult.
Some have reported that liver recipients can live normally for over 30 years after their transplant. Generally, about 72 percent of people who receive livers from deceased donors live at least five more years. In the case of a living donor transplant, which often means a shorter wait, 78 percent of recipients live at least five more years, according to the Mayo Clinic.
One study showed that in recent decades, as medical science has introduced new drugs, survival rates have increased. The study found that as many as 48 percent lived 18 years with a new liver. Recurrence of hepatitis C did compromise life expectancy, but only after the five-year mark.