If you’ve recently received a hepatitis C diagnosis, it’s understandable to feel frightened or alone. But you’re far from alone. About in the United States live with chronic hepatitis C, a disease that scars and damages the liver.
You also are likely to have many questions about your diagnosis and how it will affect your life. Your doctor can answer any questions you have, and help you understand what treatment options are available to you.
Here are a few questions to ask your doctor during your next visit. Bring a notebook or use your smartphone to write down the answers for future reference.
1. How did I get hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is transmitted through contact with the blood of someone living with the disease. Possible ways to contract hepatitis C include:
- getting a tattoo or body piercing without proper sterilization
- sharing needles while using injected drugs
- getting a needlestick injury while working in a hospital or other healthcare center
- having sexual contact with someone who has hepatitis C
- being born to a mother who has hepatitis C
- getting a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992, when screening for the virus became available
- receiving dialysis treatments over a long period
2. Is my infection acute or chronic?
There are two types of Hepatitis C: acute and chronic.
Acute hepatitis C is the short-term type of the infection. Often, it doesn’t cause any symptoms. In of people with acute hepatitis C, it clears within six months without any treatment.
Chronic hepatitis C is long-term and means your body can’t fight the disease off. It can cause liver damage if it’s not treated.
3. How does hep C affect my body?
Hepatitis C inflames the liver and causes scar tissue to build up. Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can lead to liver damage. This can ultimately lead to liver failure. The process from scarring to liver failure can take up to 20 years.
Damage to the liver from hepatitis C can cause symptoms such as:
- easy bleeding and bruising
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- dark-colored urine
- appetite loss
- weight loss
4. What tests will I need?
Your doctor will use blood tests to find out whether you have hepatitis C. If you do, they will measure the amount in your blood (viral load), and determine the genotype (genetic variation). Knowing the genotype will help your doctor choose the right treatment.
Imaging tests can show if there’s damage to your liver. Your doctor might also do a biopsy. This involves removing a sample of tissue from your liver and analyzing it in a lab.
5. What treatments are available?
Antiviral drugs are the main treatment for hepatitis C. They work by clearing the virus from your body. The newest generation of these drugs is faster and has fewer side effects than older medications.
Each hepatitis C genotype is treated with a different type of drug. The extent of your liver damage will also help determine which drug you receive.
A liver transplant may be an option for people who have severe liver damage from hepatitis C. Although a transplant doesn’t cure the disease, it will give you a healthy, functioning liver again.
6. How long does treatment take?
You take the new antiviral drugs for 8 to 12 weeks. The goal is to make sure all of the virus has cleared from your body.
7. Can hepatitis C be cured?
Yes. New drug treatments cure more than of people with chronic hepatitis C.
You’re considered cured when you take a blood test three months after you finish treatment that shows no signs of the virus. This is called a sustained virologic response (SVR).
8. What are the side effects of treatment?
New antiviral drugs are easier to tolerate than older hepatitis C medications, but they can still cause side effects. Some of the most common side effects from these drugs include:
- flu-like symptoms
- nausea and vomiting
- appetite loss
9. What lifestyle changes can I make?
Eating well and staying active is always a good idea when you have a chronic illness. Try a diet that’s low in saturated fat and high in fiber. Make time for exercise, but also set aside time to rest.
Take steps to protect your liver. Avoid drinking alcohol and any medications that are harmful to the liver. Go over your entire list of drugs — including prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) — with your doctor and pharmacist to see which ones might cause adverse effects.
10. How can I avoid spreading the infection to others?
You can’t transmit hepatitis C to others through casual contact like hugging or sharing food. But do avoid sharing items that could carry your blood on them, such as razors, toothbrushes, or nail clippers.
Cover any open cuts with a bandage. Use a barrier method such as a condom whenever you have sex. And never share needles or syringes with another person.
11. Where can I get support?
A hepatitis C diagnosis can feel isolating. Organizations like the American Liver Foundation and HCV Advocate bring together people with hepatitis C by organizing support groups online and around the country.
Your doctor and other members of your medical team also can offer advice on hepatitis C programs and resources in your area. Finally, remember that you can lean on friends and family for support when you need it.