Long-Term Effects of Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is one type of viral infection that affects the liver. Transmitted through infected blood, it can cause a mild infection, but over time it can also cause a very serious illness.
When the infection is caught early in the acute phase, treatment with medication is very effective. But in the vast majority of cases, acute infection tends to lead to long-term illness. And that’s when the infection can cause serious long-term problems, including scarring of the liver and liver cancer.
According to the International Journal of Medical Sciences, somewhere between 10 and 20% of people with chronic hepatitis C infections will develop end-state liver disease within one or two decades. In fact, hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer in the United States. It’s also the biggest contributing factor to the need for liver transplants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that hepatitis C-related liver disease is responsible for about 15,000 deaths every year.
The good news is, with new medications, we can effectively cure hepatitis C, ridding the bloodstream of any signs of the virus! Past therapies for hepatitis C were long-lasting and often caused severe side effects. Today, several new medications are available that effectively cure hepatitis C with mild side effects. Some can be even taken as a once-daily pill.
There is not yet a vaccine available for hepatitis C. The virus’ ability to mutate complicates scientists’ quest to develop an effective vaccine. But research is underway to find a vaccine, and one version is reported to have shown promise in an early-stage clinical trial.
Since treatment for hepatitis C has improved significantly, it may be time to consider trying a new therapy and avoid the long-term damage hepatitis C can cause, including:
The hepatitis C infection damages the liver cells, which are then replaced by scar tissue. And people with scar tissue in their livers are at elevated risk for also developing liver cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Cirrhosis will develop in 5 to 20 people out of 100 infected people over the course of 20 to 30 years, per CDC estimates.
The American Liver Foundation notes if you develop cirrhosis as a result of hepatitis C, your doctors will probably monitor you for some time after you finish treatment. Even if you clear the infection from your bloodstream, you can expect some periodic blood work and imaging tests so that your healthcare team can keep tabs on your liver’s health.
Chronic hepatitis C is a major risk factor for a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma, or HCC. According to the Journal of Global Infectious Diseases, HCC is the fifth most common cancer in the world and a major cause of death in people who have chronic hepatitis C. Early detection and treatment are key to preventing it from occurring.
But the amount of damage to your liver can affect the type of treatment you would receive for liver cancer. If you’re diagnosed with liver cancer, your healthcare provider may run a series of blood tests to gauge your liver function, as well as your blood clotting ability. The American Cancer Society notes that if your liver is too damaged and doesn’t work properly, you may not be able to undergo surgery to treat the cancer. Typically, surgery involves removing part of your liver, so your liver has to be able to work well enough with a portion gone to keep you alive.
The Good News
Here’s your incentive for making it all the way through treatment: hepatitis C infection doesn’t have to shorten your life expectancy.
The long-term goal for patients with hepatitis C is to achieve what’s called sustained virologic response, or SVR, which is characterized by an undetectable viral load in the bloodstream six months after finishing treatment.
A 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association studied a group of people with chronic hepatitis C and advanced fibrosis (early stages of scarring of the liver) or cirrhosis. The researchers found these patients tended to have the same life span as their peers if they had managed to achieve SVR.
Research also suggests that achieving SVR will reduce your likelihood for other complications like liver-related complications and hepatitis C-related insulin resistance. So, by making the right choices, you may be able to live a long, relatively healthy life, despite your infection.