Hepatitis C: Treatment

Today, there is no cure for hepatitis C (HCV), and no vaccine to prevent you from getting the disease.

A small percentage of people infected with HCV (15%–25%) do not develop chronic hepatitis C and have very low, or undetectable levels of the virus in their system, so they don't need any treatment. The reasons for this are not known.

In most cases, HCV infection becomes chronic and leads to further liver damage, ranging from mild to severe. If you have chronic hepatitis C, treatments can help you reduce the virus to very low or undetectable levels and help prevent further damage to your liver.

Medication. Chronic hepatitis C is usually treated with medications called antivirals that attack the virus. The most common drugs used to treat hepatitis C are pegylated interferon (administered as an injection) and ribavirin (ingested in pill form), which are taken in combination. Treatment with antivirals lasts from 24 to 48 weeks. Experts say that extremely low or undetectable levels of HCV in your blood for 24 weeks after you complete the course of drugs means your hepatitis C has responded to treatment.

Unfortunately, despite the intensity and length of the current antiviral treatments, only 40% of people find success. Side effects such as depression and flulike symptoms are common—so do not be surprised if you experience them. Acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen may offer some relief for the achiness and low-grade fever. Patients experiencing depression or personality changes may benefit from therapy sessions and antidepressant medications. Always notify your doctor of new or worsening side effects.

People who are unaware of these side effects often forgo further treatment before it is completed. Patients who have failed the treatment previously are usually reluctant to begin another treatment cycle. The good news is that more effective treatment options may be on the way.

  • On the horizon: Clinical trials for new hepatitis C drugs show great promise. Big contrasts to the current treatment options, these drugs can potentially cut current treatment length in half and may have cure rates of up to 90%—in just one single dose per day.

    One of the two drugs cut treatment times from 48 weeks to 24 weeks for two thirds of hepatitis C patients at late-stage clinical trials, while curing about 90 percent of the patients and even treating some categories of patients who hadn’t responded to previous treatments.

    The other reduced treatment times from nine months to six months and had comparable cure rates. With fewer and less severe side effects, these breakthroughs offer a bright future for those suffering from hepatitis C!

Lifestyle changes. If you have hepatitis C, you should not drink alcohol because it can speed up cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver failure. You also should check with your doctor before taking any medications, including dietary supplements and certain nonprescription drugs, which can be harmful to your liver.

Hepatitis C can be spread from person to person through contaminated blood. If you have the disease, be sure to talk to your doctor about precautions you can take to prevent passing the virus on to anyone else.

Surgery. If lifestyle changes and medications do not prevent liver failure, surgery may be an option for you.

  • Liver transplant. In more severe cases of chronic hepatitis C, a failed liver is removed and replaced with a healthy liver from a donor. Chronic HCV infection is the leading cause for liver transplants in the U.S. Remember, a liver transplant does not cure your hepatitis C. Your doctor may tell you to continue taking your medications after the surgery to keep the disease in check.

Routine management. There is more than one strain of HCV. Even if you had a previous infection that was reduced to undetectable levels, you still can become re-infected with a different strain of the virus. So, you must always take all necessary safety precautions against hepatitis C.

If you've been diagnosed with hepatitis C or think you may have been exposed to the virus, don't wait to see your doctor. Be sure to get the help you need as early as possible, and follow through on your treatment. That means taking your medication, avoiding alcohol, talking regularly with your doctors and discussing any changes in your symptoms. Taking these steps can help prevent liver damage and give you hope for the future.