Hepatitis C is a disease caused by inflammation of the liver as a result of the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The virus is transmitted when blood from a person living with hepatitis C enters the body of another person.
Since hepatitis C affects the liver, you’ll be referred to a hepatologist. A hepatologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions of the liver. You may also work with several other healthcare providers, including infectious disease specialists, radiologists, surgeons, and specially trained nurses. Together, these specialists will form your healthcare team.
Educating yourself about hepatitis C and asking specific questions allows you to be an active participant in your treatment. Here are some topics to consider discussing with your healthcare team during your appointments.
Chronic hepatitis C infection should often be treated to prevent potential liver damage from occurring.
Two commonly used drugs, interferon and ribavirin, were traditionally used to treat hepatitis C with varying degrees of success and many side effects. These drugs were given as injections over a 48-week period, and many people stopped taking the medications because of the side effects.
Newer drugs, called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs), have replaced interferon as the preferred therapy for hepatitis C. These drugs have higher cure rates and are tolerated better by patients. DAAs only require between 8 and 24 weeks of treatment.
In some cases, treatment may not be given early enough to prevent permanent liver damage. If this is the case, your doctor may suggest a liver transplant.
Here are some questions about treatment that you should consider asking your healthcare team:
- What treatment options are available for me?
- How long will my treatment last?
- How can I prepare for my treatments?
- What side effects should I expect?
- Is there anything I can do to avoid side effects?
- What are the chances my treatment may not be effective?
- Should I avoid using any medications or substances, such as alcohol?
- Will I eventually need a liver transplant?
About 80 percent of people with hepatitis C may have no symptoms. Acute (or short-term) symptoms can occur within four to six weeks after contracting the virus.
Symptoms of acute hepatitis C may include:
- general fatigue or “flu-like” symptoms
- low grade fever (101.5°F or below)
- decreased appetite
- nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain
- dark-colored urine
- gray-colored feces
- joint pain
- jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
You should ask your healthcare team how to best manage any symptoms you’re experiencing, and how you can improve how you feel. Acute symptoms can last up to six months. After that time, your body either rids itself of the virus or the virus remains in your blood stream.
If your body can’t get rid of the virus, it may become a chronic (or long-term) infection. Chronic hepatitis C may cause liver damage and liver cancer. Roughly 75 to 80 percent of people in the United States with hepatitis C will develop a chronic infection.
In addition to medical treatment, positive lifestyle changes may also help you treat your condition. Talk to your healthcare team about what you can do to improve your symptoms. Also ask about specific diet and exercise recommendations.
Sometimes, people being treated for hepatitis C experience changes in their mood or mental health. These changes may be caused by medications, but learning you have hepatitis C may also affect your mental health.
Some changes to be aware of include:
- feeling depressed
- being anxious or irritable
- feeling more emotional
- having difficulty focusing or concentrating
- having difficulty sleeping
Even though it may be difficult, talk to your healthcare team about any changes in your mental health. Your team can provide recommendations and prescribe medications that may help. You may also consider seeking out support groups. Talking with others who have hepatitis C can help you maintain a positive outlook.