Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus, which can attack and damage the liver. It’s one of the most serious hepatitis viruses.

Hepatitis C can lead to various complications, including the need for a liver transplant. In some cases, it can even lead to death.

However, with newer treatments developed over the past few years, the virus is much more manageable than it was in the past.

In most cases, hepatitis C is now considered curable, so it’s important to seek treatment early if you think you may have the virus.

Current antiviral drugs that help cure hepatitis C may also help prevent the health complications of chronic liver damage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that up to 1 out of 4 people who contract the virus will eventually be cured without treatment.

For these people, hepatitis C will be a short-term acute condition that goes away without treatment.

But for most people, acute hepatitis C will likely develop into a chronic condition that does require treatment.

Since the virus often doesn’t produce symptoms until after more significant liver damage occurs, it’s important to get tested for it if you think you might’ve been exposed.

Recent research indicates that the antiviral drugs used for treating hepatitis C may have the additional benefit of helping to prevent serious complications of the virus, such as cirrhosis from chronic liver damage.

According to a 2019 study, hepatitis C could be diagnosed more effectively after the initial first evaluation step by utilizing reflex testing.

This type of testing involves automatically performing the second evaluation step if the first test step results are positive.

It’s thought that this “one-step diagnosis” practice could help to reduce the amount of time before treatment for the virus can begin.

This could also help to reduce the amount of underdiagnosis in those who have acquired the hepatitis C virus.

There’s currently no vaccine available for hepatitis C. One clinical trial that ended in May 2018 concluded that an experimental vaccine wasn’t effective in preventing the virus in adults.

However, research continues to be conducted in hopes that it could potentially lead to an effective vaccine.

In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration approved the antiviral drug Mavyret (glecaprevir and pibrentasvir) for an 8-week treatment period for people with all genotypes of hepatitis C.

This treatment is now being used instead of the the 12-week treatment that was previously used.

It’s the first 8-week hepatitis C treatment approved for adults and children older than 12 years of age who haven’t previously been treated for the virus, who don’t have liver cirrhosis, or who have only mild cirrhosis.

Noninvasive ways to test for liver damage caused by hepatitis C are also now available.

Previously, a liver biopsy, which could cause injury, was often performed to assess the extent of the virus and any damage to the liver.

Two newer imaging tests, magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) and transient elastography, painlessly measure the stiffness of the liver.

These tests can assess the entire liver and can accurately determine the extent of fibrotic damage.

Ongoing research is being conducted that could lead to a vaccine that effectively prevents hepatitis C.

Researchers with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are in the planning stages for future vaccine designs.

A clinical trial is underway to study the effectiveness of a DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) vaccine that may boost the immune system’s ability to clear the virus.

If goal of using a DNA vaccine would be to treat chronic hepatitis C in people who already have the condition.

Previously, a combination of ribavirin and interferon was used to treat chronic hepatitis C.

Rather than just directly attacking the virus, these two medications also worked by enhancing the activity of your immune system. The immune system would then try to kill the virus.

The goal of this treatment was to rid your body of the virus. These medications had a variable cure rate and could have significant side effects.

However, since 2011, the Food and Drug Administration has approved many antivirals that attack hepatitis C more directly.

These drugs have much better success rates and seem to be better tolerated than older treatments.

Some of the most recommended current treatments for different genotypes of hepatitis C include:

  • ledipasvir-sofosbuvir (Harvoni)
  • elbasvir-grazoprevir (Zepatier)
  • ombitasvir-paritaprevir-ritonavir (Technivie)
  • ombitasvir-paritaprevir-ritonavir and dasabuvir (Viekira Pak)
  • daclatasvir-sofosbuvir (Darvoni or Sovodak)
  • glecaprevir-pibrentasvir (Mavyret)

All of these drug combinations are direct-acting antivirals (DAAs), which means they aim to attack components of the virus itself.

Over a period of time, usually 8 to 24 weeks, this causes the virus to be reduced and cleared from your system.

For all the DAAs, the goal of hepatitis C treatment is sustained virologic response (SVR).

This means that the amount of hepatitis virus in your system is so low that it can’t be detected in your bloodstream at 12-24 weeks after you finish treatment.

If you achieve SVR after treatment, it can be said that hepatitis C is cured.

Can a transplant cure hepatitis C?

If you develop chronic hepatitis C and it leads to liver cancer or liver failure, you may need a liver transplant. Hepatitis C is one of the most common reasons for a liver transplant.

A liver transplant removes a damaged liver and replaces it with a healthy one. However, there’s a high likelihood that the hepatitis C virus will be transmitted to the new liver in time.

The virus lives in your bloodstream, not just your liver. Removing your liver won’t cure the disease.

If you have active hepatitis C, continued damage to your new liver is very likely, especially if hepatitis C remains untreated.

However, if you’ve achieved SVR before the transplant, you’re somewhat less likely to develop a second case of active hepatitis C.

Are alternative medicines available?

Some people believe certain forms of alternative medicine help cure hepatitis C.

However, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that there are no effective, research-proven forms of alternative treatment or complementary medicine for hepatitis C.

Silymarin, also known as milk thistle, is an herb commonly suggested to help cure hepatitis C liver disease. But many studies haven’t found any beneficial effects from this supplement.

Is there a way to prevent hepatitis C?

Although there’s currently no vaccine to help protect people from contracting hepatitis C, there are vaccines for other hepatitis viruses, including hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

If you receive a hepatitis C diagnosis, your healthcare provider may advise you to get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.

The vaccinations are recommended because these hepatitis viruses can also lead to significant liver damage and complications in addition to the harm hepatitis C can cause.

Since you can’t prevent hepatitis C through a vaccine, the best prevention is to avoid exposure. Hepatitis C is a bloodborne pathogen, so you can limit your chances of exposure through these healthy lifestyle practices:

  • Avoid sharing needles, razor blades, or nail clippers.
  • Use proper protocol if you’ll be exposed to bodily fluids, such as when performing first aid.
  • Hepatitis C isn’t usually transmitted through sexual contact, but it’s possible. Limit your exposure by practicing sex with a condom or other barrier method. It’s also important to openly communicate with sexual partners and to get tested if you suspect you’ve been exposed to the hepatitis C virus.

Because hepatitis C is transmitted through blood, it’s possible to contract it through a blood transfusion.

However, since the early 1990s, blood product screening tests have been standard protocol for minimizing the risk of this type of transmission.

According to the CDC, it’s recommended that you talk to your healthcare provider about hepatitis C screening if you’re a baby boomer (born between 1945 and 1965) or if you received a transplant or a blood product transfusion before 1992.

Per the CDC, these populations are at a higher risk for hepatitis C.

Every case of hepatitis C begins as acute. It occurs within the first 6 months after exposure. For many people, this stage of the virus has no symptoms.

If you do experience symptoms, they can begin weeks or months after exposure to the virus.

Possible symptoms include:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dark urine
  • clay-colored bowel movements
  • joint pain
  • yellow skin

Most cases of acute hepatitis C will likely develop into a chronic condition.

Chronic hepatitis C usually has no symptoms until it causes a large amount of liver scarring (cirrhosis) and other liver damage.

Over many years, the virus attacks the liver and causes damage. This can lead to liver failure or even death.

Since hepatitis C doesn’t always cause symptoms, the only way to be sure whether you have the virus is to get tested for it.

A simple blood screening test can tell your healthcare provider whether you have antibodies to hepatitis C in your blood. The presence of antibodies means you’ve been exposed to the hepatitis C virus in your bloodstream.

A second test for the level of hepatitis C virus (viral load) will confirm infection and quantify the amount of virus in your bloodstream.

It’s definitely possible to have a positive response to treatment for hepatitis C. Antiviral medications that are currently available can cure more than 95% of people with the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

According to a 2015 study, people who achieve SVR have a 1% to 2% late relapse rate and a much lowered risk of liver-related death.

Read this article in Spanish.