Significant advances have been made in recent years when it comes to treating hepatitis C, a virus that causes inflammation in your liver.

It’s tricky, though, because many people with hepatitis C don’t realize they are infected with it. It can take years, and even decades, for symptoms to appear, and by that time, liver damage may have already occurred. So, how late is too late for treating hep C?

Understanding Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus, meaning it’s spread through contact with contaminated blood. The majority of hepatitis C infections will become chronic, meaning it persists in your body. After an extended time, signs of liver disease may develop. This includes bruising and bleeding easily, jaundice (yellowish coloring) of the skin and eyes, itchy skin, abdominal pain, fatigue, and poor appetite. The longer hep C continues untreated, the more your liver can become damaged. Eventually, permanent scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis, may develop, impacting your liver’s ability to function as it should. This can also lead to more serious complications, including liver cancer and liver failure.

Hepatitis C: Not What You Think

In most cases, it is never too late to treat hepatitis C! Unlike many chronic diseases, hepatitis C can be cured, thanks to new medications. The goal of treatment is to reach what’s known as sustained virologic response (SVR), which indicates there are no longer any traces of the hepatitis C virus in your blood for at least 12 weeks after treatment. Until recently, the only medications used to treat hep C were interferon and ribavirin, but they weren’t effective all the time. They were also quite harsh on the body, so not everyone was a candidate and many people couldn’t tolerate the challenging side effects. But now, with a new type of medication called direct-acting antivirals, it’s recommended that nearly everyone with hepatitis C undergo treatment. (The only time it’s not indicated is for those who already have a short life expectancy that won’t be improved with treatment.) Direct-acting antivirals have excellent outcomes with fewer side effects. Plus, treatment times are only 8 to 24 weeks in duration, as opposed to the many months required for treatment with the older drugs.

Your doctor will test to determine the genotype of your hepatitis C, which is a way to categorize different strains based on their genetic makeup. This is important information because certain antivirals work best on specific genotypes. Your doctor will also examine the overall health of your liver and consider any other medical conditions you may have when selecting which antiviral or combination of antivirals would be most appropriate for treating your hep C. 

In severe cases, liver transplantation may be needed if your liver can no longer carry out its necessary functions due to sustained damage. Antivirals are usually still required either pre- or post-transplant to treat your hepatitis C, however.

The bottom line is: the earlier you treat hepatitis C, the better. Eradicating the infection before any permanent damage occurs to your liver or other complications arise is the goal. However, because of the great success that’s been achieved treating hep C with direct-acting antivirals, it’s rarely too late to treat the disease. Talk to your doctor about your individual risks and benefits of undergoing hepatitis C treatment.

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