In recent years, scientists have developed antiviral medications to treat hepatitis C. In most cases, treatment with antiviral drugs cures the infection. But it can also cause uncomfortable side effects.
Early treatment for hepatitis C is vital to address the infection and reduce your risk of complications. Without treatment, the complications that can develop from hepatitis C can become severe. This can include liver cancer and liver failure.
Your doctor can help you understand your treatment options and the risk of side effects. Here are some questions you can ask them to learn about the side effects that you might experience, as well as strategies for managing them.
Before you begin a new course of treatment for hepatitis C, ask your doctor about its potential benefits and risks. Their recommended treatment plan will depend on:
- the specific subtype of hepatitis C virus that’s causing the infection
- the condition of your liver and overall health
- how you’ve responded to any past treatments
The risk of side effects varies from one antiviral medication to another.
In the past, most cases of hepatitis C were treated with pegylated interferon and ribavirin. These older medications tend to cause significant side effects. They’ve become less popular, as newer generations of antiviral medications have been developed. These newer drugs tend to be easier to tolerate, but they can still cause effects that some people find hard to manage.
Common side effects of antiviral treatment include:
- difficulty sleeping
If your doctor prescribes pegylated interferon and ribavirin, you might also experience:
- skin symptoms, such dry skin, itchy skin, and hair loss
- flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, and muscle aches
- respiratory symptoms, such as cough, runny nose, and sore throat
- psychological symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and irritability
In rare cases, you might develop serious side effects from treatment, such as severe anemia. Some medications also raise the risk of birth defects. If you or your partner is pregnant or trying to become pregnant, let your doctor know.
It’s common to feel tired when you’re going through treatment for hepatitis C. Tell your doctor if you’re experiencing significant fatigue and ask for strategies to manage it. For example, they might encourage you to:
- try to get more sleep at night
- take breaks and naps during the day
- go for daily walks to increase your alertness
- adjust your schedule or workload to allow more time for rest
If your doctor suspects the fatigue is caused by anemia, depression, or another condition, they may order tests or adjust your treatment plan.
Some antiviral treatments cause insomnia or mood changes that can keep you awake at night. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor. They might suggest:
- adjusting your sleep schedule
- taking fewer or shorter naps during the day
- avoiding caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals, or excess fluids in the hours before bedtime
- reducing screen time with smartphones, handheld devices, and television in the hours before bedtime.
- practicing deep breathing or other relaxation techniques before you go to sleep
If these strategies aren’t enough, your doctor might prescribe medications to help you sleep.
If you experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea after starting treatment, let your doctor know. They might encourage you to make changes to your diet or eating habits.
For example, they might recommend:
- eating smaller meals
- eating bland foods, such as bananas, apple sauce, white rice, and white bread
- avoiding spicy foods, greasy foods, or other foods that upset your stomach
- sipping clear liquids to replace fluids lost through vomiting or diarrhea
Depending on your prescribed treatment plan, it might also help to take your medication with food. Ask your doctor if you should take your medication with food or on an empty stomach.
If you develop headaches after beginning your treatment, ask your doctor about the potential cause and treatment options. To help prevent and relieve headaches, they might advise you to:
- drink plenty of fluids
- lie down in a dark quiet room to rest
- apply a cool cloth to your forehead or the back of your neck
- take ibuprofen or other over-the-counter pain relievers
Some over-the-counter pain relievers might be hard on your liver or interact with other medications that you take. Before you take pain relievers, ask your doctor or pharmacist if they’re safe for you.
If you develop other side effects from treatment, let your doctor know. Depending on your specific symptoms, they might:
- order tests to determine the cause of your symptoms
- encourage you to adjust your daily habits to prevent or relieve the symptoms
- advise you to use over-the-counter medications to treat symptoms
- make changes to your treatment plan
You may be able to manage side effects of treatment by adjusting your daily routine. But in some cases, your doctor might need to change your treatment plan.
Ask your doctor what to look out for. They can give you advice about when you should contact them or seek emergency medical care for suspected side effects.
When you’re undergoing treatment for hepatitis C, it’s not unusual to develop side effects. Newer antiviral medications tend to cause mild to moderate side effects that often get better within a few weeks.
But in some cases, you might experience more serious side effects. Ask your doctor about the potential risks of your treatment plan. Be sure to let them know if you think you’ve developed side effects.