You may have been shocked to learn you've got hepatitis C. Like a lot of folks, you might have thought you weren't at risk for the disease. It's normal to have lots of questions about what comes next. Find out how to get the support you need and where to turn for medical advice.
You May Feel Alone, but You Aren’t
Hepatitis C isn’t rare in the U.S., especially among baby boomers -- people born between 1945 and 1965. People this age are five times more likely than others to get the virus, which causes swelling and scarring of the liver.
You Could Be Cured
Hepatitis C can be cured. It happens when your doctor finds no trace of the virus in your body 3-6 months after you finish medication.
You Need to Find the Right Doctor
When you have hep C, it's important to find the right doctor. Although it's possible to get cured, it's likely you'll be getting care from the same person for many years.
Many kinds of doctors treat people with liver diseases. Look for one who has a lot of experience taking care of people with hep C. Information about the disease changes quickly. So you want to make sure the person treating you keeps up with latest advances.
Doctors trained to treat organs of the digestive tract (gastroenterologists), liver doctors (hepatologists), and infectious disease specialists all stay up to date on how to treat and cure hepatitis C.
You’ll Get More Tests
Your doctor will want to learn more about your condition. Tests you might get include:
Genotype tests to find out which of the six kinds (genotypes) of hepatitis C you have.
Tests to check for liver damage. You might get:
- Elastography: Doctors use a special ultrasound machine to feel how stiff your liver is.
- Liver biopsy: The doctor inserts a needle into your liver to take a tiny piece to examine in the lab.
- Imaging test: These use various methods to take pictures or show images of your insides. They include:
- CT Scan
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Magnetic resonance elastography (MRE)
Liver function tests (LFTs) or liver enzyme tests: These blood tests help the doctor tell how well your liver is working.
These test results will help the doctor decide which treatment is right for you. They also may play a role in decisions made by your insurance company, Medicaid, or other sources of help with your payment.
There Could Be Complications
About 75% to 85% of people who have it get a long-term infection called chronic hepatitis C. If the condition goes untreated, it can lead to:
- Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver
- Liver cancer
- Liver failure
Your Doctor Will Work With You to Choose a Treatment
Treatment for hepatitis C keeps changing quickly. The standard treatment was typically interferon along with other drugs -- often ribavirin.
But many people have a hard time with interferon’s side effects, which include fatigue, fever, chills, and depression. Treatment now centers on direct acting antiviral drugs (DAAs). These medicines are highly effective for most people with hepatitis C and are interferon-free and often ribavirin-free. This means they typically have fewer side effects. The treatments are often simpler, with fewer pills for a shorter amount of time. You can get DAAs as either single drugs or combined with other medicines in one pill.
You’ll Need Support
Friends and family can be a big help in giving you the emotional backing you need while you manage the disease. But you may also want to think about joining a support group. You'll meet people there who are going through the same things you are. Ask your doctor how to find one in your area.
Take care in finding a group that's right for you. If you find the conversation tends to break down into trading scary stories, it might not be a place that's going to give you the support you need. Feel free to switch to one that's got a more positive vibe.
You Might Be Depressed
Mental health problems like depression and anxiety are more common among people with hep C. Sometimes, how you feel may be a side effect of the medicine you're taking.
You may feel:
- Emotionally unstable
- Unable to concentrate
But there are steps you can take to treat these problems.
Antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs can help. Some doctors prescribe them before you take interferon so you can prevent or limit these symptoms.
You can also get help from talking with a psychiatrist or mental health counselor. Your doctor can recommend one. Some therapists specialize in treating people like you who are trying to manage a long-term disease.
You're going to be living with hep C for some time, so don't hesitate to reach out to family and friends while you adjust to your situation. Along with your doctor, support group, and mental health specialist, they can help you stay positive and meet any challenges you face.
Lifestyle Changes Can Help
Over time, hepatitis C can damage your liver. To keep the damage as low as possible:
- Don’t drink or do drugs.
- Don’t take medications or supplements that can damage your liver.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Eat healthy food.
- Get moderate exercise.