Hepatitis C is a virus that can attack and damage the liver. It’s one of the most serious hepatitis viruses. Hepatitis C can lead to various complications, including liver transplant. In some cases, it can even lead to death.
However, new treatments for hepatitis C over the past few years mean that the virus today is much more manageable than it was in the past. In most cases, hepatitis C is curable, so it’s important to seek treatment early if you may have the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that up to 1 out of 4 people who contract the hepatitis C virus will eventually be cured from the condition without treatment. For these people, hepatitis C will be a short-term acute condition that goes away without treatment.
For most people, acute hepatitis C will develop into a chronic condition that does require treatment. Since the virus often doesn’t produce symptoms until after liver damage occurs, it’s important to get tested for it if you think you might’ve been exposed.
In the past, chronic hepatitis C was treated with a combination of ribavirin and interferon. Rather than directly attacking the virus, these drugs worked by boosting the activity of your immune system. The immune system would then kill the virus.
The goal of this treatment was to rid your body of the virus. These medications had a variable cure rate and could have significant side effects.
However, since 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved many antivirals that attack hepatitis C more directly. These drugs have much better success rates than older treatments. Some of the most recommended treatments for different genotypes of hepatitis C include:
- ledipasvir-sofosbuvir (Harvoni)
- elbasvir-grazoprevir (Zepatier)
- ombitasvir-paritaprevir-ritonavir (Technivie)
- ombitasvir-paritaprevir-ritonavir and dasabuvir (Viekira Pak)
- daclatasvir-sofosbuvir (Darvoni or Sovodak)
- glecaprevir-pibrentasvir (Mavyret)
All of these drug combinations are protease inhibitors. This means they prevent the virus from getting the proteins it needs to reproduce. Over a period of time, usually 8 to 24 weeks, this causes the virus to die out and clear from your system.
For all of the protease inhibitor drugs, the goal of hepatitis C treatment is sustained virologic response (SVR). SVR means that the amount of hepatitis virus in your system is so low that it can’t be detected 12 weeks after you finish treatment.
If you achieve SVR after treatment, you can say that hepatitis C is cured.
If you develop chronic hepatitis C and it leads to liver cancer or liver failure, you may need a liver transplant. Hepatitis C is one of the most common reasons for a liver transplant.
A liver transplant removes a damaged liver and replaces it with a healthy one. However, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases notes that it’s possible for hepatitis C to return even after a transplant. The virus lives in your bloodstream, not your liver. Removing your liver won’t cure the disease.
If you have active hepatitis C, continued damage to your new liver is very likely, but only if hepatitis C remains untreated. However, if you’ve achieved SVR before the transplant, you’re unlikely to develop a second case of hepatitis C.
Some people believe certain forms of alternative medicine help cure hepatitis C. However, the Mayo Clinic reports that there are no research-proven forms of alternative treatment or complementary medicine for hepatitis C.
Milk thistle is an herb commonly suggested to help cure liver disease. But a study published in JAMA found that milk thistle was no more effective than a placebo in treating people with hepatitis C.
There’s currently no vaccine to help protect people from contracting hepatitis C. But there are vaccines for other hepatitis viruses, including hepatitis A and hepatitis B. According to the CDC, researchers are working toward developing a vaccine for hepatitis C as well.
If you receive a diagnosis with hepatitis C, your doctor may advise you to get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. This is because these viruses can also lead to liver damage and complications during treatment for hepatitis C.
Since you can’t prevent hepatitis C via a vaccine, the best prevention is to avoid exposure. Hepatitis C is a bloodborne pathogen, so you can limit your chances of exposure through healthy lifestyle practices.
Avoid sharing needles. Use proper protocol if you’ll be exposed to bodily fluids, such as when performing first aid. Hepatitis C isn’t usually transmitted through sexual contact, but it’s possible. Limit your exposure by using condoms, unless you and your partner are monogamous and have both been recently tested.
Because hepatitis C is transmitted through blood, it’s possible to contract it through a blood transfusion. However, blood product screening tests weren’t available until 1992. It’s recommended to talk to your doctor about hepatitis C screening if you’re a baby boomer (born between 1945 and 1965), or if you received a transplant or a blood transfusion before 1992.
Every case of hepatitis C begins as acute. It occurs a few weeks after exposure. For many people, this stage of the virus has no symptoms. If you do experience symptoms, they can begin weeks or months after exposure to the virus. Possible symptoms include:
- dark urine
- clay-colored bowel movements
- joint pain
- yellow skin
Most cases of acute hepatitis C will develop into a chronic condition. Chronic hepatitis C usually has no symptoms until it causes a large amount of liver scarring (cirrhosis) and other liver damage. Over many years, the virus attacks the liver and causes damage. This can lead to liver failure or even death.
Since hepatitis C doesn’t always cause symptoms, the only way to be sure whether you have the virus is to get tested for it.
A simple blood screening test can tell your doctor whether you have antibodies to hepatitis C in your blood. The presence of antibodies means you’ve been exposed to hepatitis C. A second test for virus levels will tell your doctor whether you’ve contracted the condition.
It’s definitely possible to have a positive response to treatment of hepatitis C. A large portion of people who are treated with protease inhibitors will achieve SVR and be cured.
According to a 2015 study, people who achieve SVR have a 1 to 2 percent relapse rate and a very low likelihood of liver-related death.