Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Shuvani Sanyal, MD
If you have hepatitis C (HCV or hep-C), taking care of yourself may be simple, or it may be complicated depending upon how sick you are, the symptoms you have, other problems you may have, etc. This is your basic care overview, but for more information, check the resources links at the bottom of this post.
The hep-C virus only causes sever liver damage in a small percentage of people: less than 3% of those infected will die from it. Most people live with hepatitis C for many years without serious health problems or the need to take medication. Some people will never have any symptoms or need to think about treatment at all.
Is There A Cure for Hepatitis C?
There is treatment (or medicine) for hep-C. There are two goals of this treatment:
- Getting rid of the hep-C virus
- Stopping damage the virus causes to your liver
But there are problems with this treatment:
- The current medications can have very severe and difficult side affects, and many people aren’t able to complete it.
- Even when the virus appears totally gone, it often returns – sometimes many months later.
- The treatment can help stop future damage, but only the liver can repair past damage.
So, is there a cure? Right now, doctors believe some people are cured: the medications get rid of the HCV, it doesn’t reappear and – if damaged – the liver eventually heals. Most people, however are not cured: hep-C returns after the treatment has ended, causing more damage to their livers. Sometimes, liver health does improve if people take the medication for a short time, but doctors are not sure how much – or for how long – this helps. Many doctors recommend that you don’t try the treatment unless you have serious liver damage, or hep-C has seriously affected the quality of your life.
Some People Choose Medication
It can temporarily stop or slow down the damage hep-C causes, and keep people alive until better treatment is available. Other people decide to put off treatment, especially if their liver is in good health. Which is one reason tests that measure your liver’s health are so important: once you know if hep-C has damaged your liver, you can decide whether to begin treatment, wait for better drugs, or skip it altogether.
The problems with treatment can be even harder for drug users. They are managing habits. Sometimes they can’t rely on friends and family to help them if the side effects of the treatment make them sick, and they may be dealing with things like homelessness, having very little money and not being able to eat well. It’s a good idea to look for a doctor who understands – and respects – the special needs of active users. Until recently, most doctors wouldn’t treat users unless they had been drug-free for at least 6 months, but that is changing. Federal guidelines for hep-C treatment now include active drug users.
NOTE: This is all based on the information presently available. We still don’t know everything we need to know about this disease, and the treatments are pretty new. The information could change at any time and we, at The STI Project, will do our best to update our articles regularly.
Also, many people use alternative, traditional or complementary therapies (such as Chinese Medicine, herbs, and vitamins) to treat hep-C. Although some people report that these these therapies work, their effectiveness has yet to be scientifically proven.
Milk thistle is an herbal remedy many people believe is helpful to the liver. No one has proved if it works or not. In small doses, milk thistle is not harmful. Some people who take the hep-c medication believe that milk thistle makes the side effects easier to handle. But if you are hep-c/HIV co-infected and you are taking HIV medicines, talk to you doctor before taking milk thistle. Milk thistle may interact with some HIV medicines.
Taking Care of Your Liver
- Drink lots of water. Water is a vital component to maintaining your health. When the liver is stressed, drinking water is a way to let your kidneys share some of the work ridding your body of toxins.
- Be kind to your liver. Eat well and reduce your stress. Eat a balanced diet with lots of fresh vegetables and fruit.
- The liver helps digest fats that you eat. Scientists have discovered that fat can build up around the liver, and when this happens it can make hep-c worse. Cutting down on fats can reduce the damage this causes.
- Try to eat a low-salt diet. Lots of salt contributes to bloating, swelling and water retention, especially in people with cirrhosis.
- Before you take vitamins or food supplements, check with a doctor or a nutritionist: some contain substances that may aggravate your hep-c infection if you take too much, like iron and vitamin A.
- Protein is important, but too much can also make your liver work overtime. Try to eat fewer dairy products and fewer high protein foods, like red meat. Instead of eating a lot of red meat (which is also very high in iron), try eating beans, whole grains, lean meats and meat substances.
- Consider exercising on a regular basis or look for stress management and relaxation techniques offered in your community, such as acupuncture, meditation or yoga. Walking is a great way to exercise and clear your head, and it doesn’t cost anything.
Reducing Harm to Your Liver
Cut back on alcohol.
The most important step you can take it to stop or reduce you consumption of alcohol. Studies have shown that drinking alcohol speeds up liver damage for people with hep-C. The more you drink, and the more often you drink, the more damage you can cause to your liver. People who drink and have both serious liver scarring (cirrhosis) and hep-C are more likely to advance very quickly to liver cancer or liver failure.
Cut back on ‘street’ drugs.
You may want to reduce the amount of street drugs you take. Speed and ecstasy have been blamed for liver damage in some studies, but there is still disagreement on how they affect the liver. Heroin and cocaine are not harmful to the liver. However, all of those drugs are made in underground laboratories and only available through street dealers. Street drugs are never pure, no matter what the dealer says. They may contain other substances that may be damaging to the liver like cuts added by the dealer to increase profit or by-products left behind from when the drugs are made.
Ibuprofen & Acetaminophen
The active ingredient in Motrin and Advil has caused problems for some people with liver disease. Acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, and also an ingredient in Percocet, Vicodin, and other prescription painkillers, can cause liver damage in high doses, especially when taken with alcohol. One study has shown ibuprofen to cause problems for people with hep-C; some doctors recommend using acetaminophen instead, but usually no more than 1000mg per day.
Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can strain your liver, but it can be hard to tell which ones are bad. This is because most people are taking drugs in combinations, and identifying the drug that causes harm is difficult. To be safe, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
Methadone is not toxic to your liver. Methadone does not make hep-C worse, and it does not interact with hepatitis C treatment. If you’re on a methadone program (or taking methadone on your own), you don’t have to stop – or even cut down – if you are diagnosed with hep-C. In fact, if methadone helps you reduce your use of street drugs, alcohol and prescription drugs that are hard on the liver, then you’re more likely to remain healthy. Staying with your methadone program could help prevent your hep-C infection from getting worse, and help keep you from getting re-infected.
Most herbs are safe and have very mild effects, but there may be some that are toxic in high doses. If you have any liver damage or if you have hep-C, then check with a professional herbalist about any herbs you might take. Get the best quality you can afford from sources you can trust.
Important: Make sure you’re immune to hepatitis A & B!
Vaccinations against hep-A & hep-B are available. Getting hep-A or B can make a person with hep-C sicker. If you’re at risk for hep-C and haven’t been diagnosed with hep-A or B, then it’s a good idea to get screened for both. If you find you have not been exposed to either virus and are not immune, then getting vaccinated against hep-A and B is highly recommended.
Vaccination could save your life. Hep-A vaccination requires two shots over 6 months. Vaccination against hep-B is also advisable; hep-B is easily transmitted and can cause additional health problems for people who have hep-C. Hep-B vaccination requires three shots over 6 months. There is a combined hep-A & B vaccine, also given in three shots over 6 months. To get full protection (immunity) against hep-A or B, you must get all of the shots in each series.
Currently, there is no vaccine for hep-C. If you have HIV, there is a small chance that these vaccinations will still not provide you with immunity. If this happens, doctors recommend getting vaccinated again.
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Did the tips and information above help you? Are you living with hep-C and have some suggestions to include? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!