If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with hepatitis C, you may feel scared or overwhelmed. After all, hepatitis C can be serious if left untreated. But there is hope: Thanks to decades of research, today’s hepatitis C treatments can actually cure the disease.
“Hepatitis C is one of the great success stories of modern medicine,” says Lawrence S. Friedman, MD. “Not only is it curable, but it’s an easy cure.”
Dr. Friedman is a Mass General Brigham gastroenterologist and chair of the Department of Medicine at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Here, he discusses hepatitis C risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options.
Hepatitis C is a virus that spreads from person to person through blood. It causes the liver to become inflamed. This can cause the liver to scar, leading to cirrhosis (scarring due to long-term damage to the liver). Cirrhosis, in turn, can lead to further health complications including liver cancer.
In most cases, chronic hepatitis C doesn't cause symptoms at all. The main symptom, if present, is mild to moderate fatigue. But fatigue is fairly common, so many people don't know it could be due to hepatitis C.
There are two types of hepatitis C:
People with acute hepatitis C infection may experience the following signs and symptoms:
Risk factors for hepatitis C include:
The hepatitis C virus was discovered in 1989. But doctors began treating the disease it causes in the mid-1980s. At the time, doctors treated patients with a drug called interferon. Patients had to inject interferon 3 times a week for 48 weeks. Unfortunately, this wasn’t very effective, and patients experienced many side effects.
Once researchers confirmed hepatitis C was a virus, they could test for it. And by 1992, transfusions and the blood supply were made much safer than they ever had been.
Researchers also learned how hepatitis C could lead to liver scarring and even cirrhosis over time. This discovery led to new treatment approaches. Doctors could then prescribe drugs specifically made to cure hepatitis C. And these drugs had few, if any, side effects.
Doctors and researchers have come a long way in treating and managing hepatitis C. “In fact, we’ve set a goal of eliminating hepatitis C and all the hepatitis viruses by 2030,” says Dr. Friedman.
In 2020, the Nobel Prize in medicine went to the discovery and development of cures for hepatitis C. Gone are the days of self-injection of a treatment with many side effects. You can now take a safe oral regimen once a day.
Today's treatment is given for a relatively short period of time—as few as 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the regimen. It's relatively free of side effects and can cure hepatitis C over 95% of the time. Patients can expect a cure regardless of their virus strain as well.
"Cirrhosis caused by hepatitis C has been a common reason for liver transplantation," explains Dr. Friedman. "But that number is going down because we can now cure hepatitis C and prevent cirrhosis. In some cases, we can actually reverse cirrhosis."
If you're older than 18 or have any risk factors for hepatitis C, be sure to get screened regularly. If you have the condition, your team can find non-invasive ways to check for scarring in your liver.
“Don’t be afraid to get tested, and don’t be afraid to get treated,” says Dr. Friedman. “We can make hepatitis C a problem of the past.”