Hepatitis C can lead to liver damage due to long-term inflammation, but there are changes you can make now that can help protect your liver. This may involve changes to your diet, activity level, and more.

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and can lead to liver complications. That’s because this viral infection leads to swelling (inflammation) of your liver.

In this article, we discuss the impact of hepatitis C on the liver and what you can do to prevent or reduce damage.

The longer your liver is inflamed, the greater the chance of long-term damage to liver tissue.

This damage occurs because hepatitis C targets healthy liver cells. The body then initiates an immune response that can accelerate liver damage. This leads to fibrosis, or scarring of the liver, which prevents healthy liver function.

It is thought that the complications that can occur from hepatitis C may result from the combination of the effect of the virus and this immune response.

These complications primarily include permanent scarring (cirrhosis) and liver cancer, especially if you have chronic hepatitis C.

Chronic hepatitis C develops as a result of untreated acute hepatitis C, or if your body is otherwise unable to fight off the infection.

This is a relatively common occurrence, with an estimated 75% to 85% of people with acute hepatitis C developing chronic hepatitis C after 6 months.

Liver damage from chronic hepatitis C may progress from liver inflammation to the following complications:

  • Fibrosis: Fibrosis may be mild at first but can progress to an impact on liver function.
  • Cirrhosis: HCV is considered the leading cause of cirrhosis in the U.S. Having cirrhosis means that your liver is permanently scarred due to underlying inflammation. Moderate to severe fibrosis makes it difficult for your liver to function properly and may even block blood flow.
  • End-stage liver disease (ESLD): Also called liver (hepatic) failure, ESLD results from damage so significant that your liver can no longer function independently. Such damage usually develops over the course of several months or years. People with ESLD often need a liver transplant.
  • Liver cancer: Cirrhosis and ESLD may also increase your risk of liver cancer. This can also happen in cases where the hepatitis C infection is successfully treated, but cirrhosis has already developed.

Due to advances in antiviral treatments, hepatitis C has a better outlook compared to previous years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the mortality rate of hepatitis C has been decreasing in recent years.

That said, 5-25 people out of 100 with hepatitis C develop cirrhosis within 10 to 20 years. Among these, there is a 1% to 4% annual risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer, and a 3% to 6% annual risk of liver function loss. Among those who lose liver function, the risk of death within a year is still 15% to 20%.

For this reason, your doctor may still recommend you make some lifestyle changes in addition to continuing to take standard medications.

While lifestyle changes can’t replace antivirals for HCV, they can help by supporting your liver more generally. Consider the following steps you can take to protect the health of your liver.

Manage your weight

Hepatitis C can cause initial weight loss as your body tries to fight off the virus. But the disease can present long-term implications for weight gain.

It’s possible for your weight to fluctuate as you start gaining your appetite back after experiencing symptoms like nausea and an inability to keep food down.

Gaining weight may not be a concern for you. But people who are overweight or with obesity may be at higher risk of liver damage. Having hepatitis C is thought to be more damaging to your liver if you have excess body weight.

Long-term weight management can go a long way in protecting your liver. Losing weight may also help prevent nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

If you’re having difficulty maintaining your weight, ask a doctor for helpful resources. They can also help you set attainable weight goals that are appropriate for your age, height, and overall health.

Eat liver-friendly foods

Beyond managing your weight if needed, you may also want to reconsider the foods you consume for overall liver health.

A liver-friendly diet focuses on fruits and vegetables, lean sources of protein, and complex carbs derived from whole grains. Reduced portions of all foods — especially fatty ones — can also help you protect your liver.

Here are some other dietary tips that can help you protect your liver while achieving your weight goals:

  • Avoid added sugars.
  • Choose plant-based oils, such as olive oil, over butter.
  • Snack on nuts and seeds.
  • Choose low fat dairy products.
  • Avoid saturated fats found in sour cream, packaged meats, and boxed foods.
  • Reduce your sodium intake.
  • Limit your iron intake.
  • Avoid raw or undercooked meats and shellfish.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

You may also consider talking with a dietitian to develop an eating plan tailored to your liver health and any goals you may have, such as weight loss.

Learn more about foods to eat and avoid with hepatitis C.

Limit your alcohol intake

Drinking alcohol can negatively affect an already damaged liver. It’s important to decrease the amount of alcohol you consume on a regular basis. Your doctor may even recommend that you refrain from alcohol altogether.

Your liver is the primary organ responsible for metabolizing nutrients and other substances you ingest. If there’s too much alcohol in your system, your liver enzymes may be ill-equipped to process it. In turn, the excess alcohol circulates through the rest of your body.

As a rule of thumb, it’s important to drink in moderation. This equates to two drinks a day for males and one a day for females.

Still, even moderate alcohol consumption can be dangerous when you’re living with hepatitis C. For this reason, a doctor may recommend avoiding alcohol completely if you have an active hepatitis C infection or related liver damage.

Increase your activity level

If a doctor recommends weight loss to improve the health of your liver, exercise is one method to do that. But the benefits of exercise extend beyond weight loss and weight management.

Aside from reducing overall body fat, exercise can help decrease fat around your liver. Regular exercise can also boost your mood, as well as your energy levels.

One 2019 review also found that a sedentary lifestyle, along with other factors such as poor nutrition, smoking, and alcohol consumption, were more likely to lead to poorer outcomes in people with cirrhosis.

For best results, aim for 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week plus strength training. Start out gradually, and focus on activities you enjoy. For example, include a combination of running or walking, group exercise classes or team sports, and machines at the gym.

Be careful with medications and supplements

Your liver is critical in processing medications, herbs, and supplements. It’s important to take extra precautions with these when your liver is weakened due to hepatitis C.

This includes over-the-counter medication such as allergy drugs and pain relievers, nutritional supplements, and herbal remedies.

Talk with a doctor before using any new medications or supplements. Also, avoid alcohol while you’re taking any medications. This can inadvertently increase liver damage.

Protecting your overall liver health when you have hepatitis C can go a long way in preventing complications. This is crucial because if your liver reaches a state of cirrhosis, it causes irreversible scarring. Severe liver damage from hepatitis C may eventually require a liver transplant.

Although antiviral treatments can clear the hepatitis C virus from your body, it’s still possible to have lingering liver damage. You’re also at a higher risk of cirrhosis if you have chronic untreated hepatitis C.

Protecting your liver is important for anyone, but it’s especially vital if you have a condition that affects your liver, like hepatitis C. Talk with a doctor about ways you can incorporate the above lifestyle modifications and how they might complement your hepatitis C treatment plan.