Hepatitis C is a tricky one. Because the virus does not often present symptoms, most hepatitis C infections progress to the chronic stage where, over years or decades, they can cause serious liver damage, including cirrhosis or even liver cancer. Luckily, newer treatments for hepatitis C can cure the virus and heal your liver.
Older medications for hepatitis C had a lower cure rate and had more significant side effects. Now, newer classes of drugs have had a breakthrough impact. These medications come in pill form, some of which only need to be taken once a day. Treatment usually lasts three to six months, and they can have a cure rate of 95 percent. Your exact treatment regimen depends on what strain of the hepatitis C virus you have.
While these medications have proven to be effective at treating hepatitis C, it is crucial to follow instructions from your doctor.
“If you miss doses or don’t take all of the medication, it won’t work as well as it should,” says internist Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, a clinical instructor of medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital. “Even worse, the virus can become ‘resistant,’ which means the medication might not be able to cure the virus.”
Also key: Let your doctor know about any other medications you may be taking before you start hep C treatment. Many drugs that treat hepatitis C may interact negatively with other medications, including innocent-sounding supplements and herbal remedies. For example, some medications may cause complications when combined with medications for HIV, a common comorbidity of hepatitis C. (Here’s more information about the link between HIV and hepatitis C.)
Three to six months after you stop treatment for hepatitis C, you’ll need to do another blood test to see if you’re cured, which means the virus is no longer in your body or able to cause liver damage.
As for the damage that may have already occurred? Luckily, the body is always working to repair itself, so damage like liver scarring (known as cirrhosis) often slowly improves over time.
If you have not been tested for hepatitis C and have one or more of the risk factors, particularly if you are a baby boomer (born between 1945 and 1965), talk to your doctor about learning your hepatitis C status. Learn more about testing for hepatitis C here.