What You Need to Know about Hepatitis C
Living with Hepatitis C: Personal Stories
"I need to stay healthy, because I have two little girls and they keep me busy! I had a biopsy and my doctor says my liver is doing okay. So far, so good..." "... but I worry about my family. Sometimes I let my kids drink from my glass, or I forget to cover my mouth when I cough. Could that give them hepatitis C? And what about my partner? Can you get hepatitis C through sex?"
Hepatitis C is not spread through casual contact like coughing, sharing cups or eating utensils, hugging, or kissing. Hepatitis C is only spread through contact with infected blood. The most common ways that hepatitis C is spread are:
- sharing needles and other equipment (" works") used to inject drugs or other substances
- mother to baby during birth
- accidental needle-stick injuries, mainly to health care workers on the job
- sex without using a condom (this is a rare way to get hepatitis C, but it does happen)
It may also be possible to spread hepatitis C through:
- sharing razors, toothbrushes, or nail clippers with a person who has hepatitis C (because these items may have traces of blood on them)
- tattoos or piercing, especially if it is not done by a professional with sterile equipment
A woman can pass hepatitis C to her baby during birth. About 5 out of 100 babies born to women with hepatitis C will be infected. Talk to your child's doctor about when to test your child for hepatitis C.
Before 1992, people also got hepatitis C through infected blood transfusions and organ transplants. Now, all blood and organ donations are tested for hepatitis C, so it is safe to get blood or organs.
It is possible to spread hepatitis C during sex, but this is rare. On the other hand, HIV and other STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) are easily spread during sex. Always use condoms to protect yourself and your partners.
Keeping your loved ones safe
Hepatitis C is spread through blood. To avoid giving hepatitis C to others:
- do not share needles, syringes, or other injection equipment (" works")
- do not share razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, or other household items that could have blood on them
- clean up blood spills right away with bleach
- keep cuts or sores covered with a bandage
"When I found out that I had hepatitis C, I was really angry. I worked so hard to get off drugs and was just starting to get my life together. Then they told me I had this disease. I couldn't believe it. I didn't go back to the doctor for a while - I didn't want to deal with it.
Later I realized it wasn't going to just go away. I want to stay as healthy as I can. Is there is a treatment for hepatitis C?"
You are not alone. Dealing with recovery and hepatitis C can be stressful. It may help to know that there are many other people in the same situation. Ask your doctor, counselor, or case manager about support groups for people in recovery who have hepatitis C.
There is a treatment for hepatitis C, but it does not work for everybody. The treatment is a combination of two medicines: pegylated interferon and ribavirin. Pegylated interferon is injected under the skin (like a shot) once a week. Ribavirin is a pill that you swallow. Treatment usually lasts for 12 months; sometimes it is shorter.
Hepatitis C treatment does not work for everyone:
- About half of people treated with pegylated interferon and ribavirin have healthier livers and no hepatitis C in their bodies at the end of treatment.
- Some people's livers get healthier during treatment, but the hepatitis C is not completely removed from their bodies. They may still have liver damage from hepatitis C in the future.
"I'm also in a methadone program. Will I have to stop taking methadone if I want treatment for hepatitis C?"
No. You can be treated for hepatitis C while you are on methadone.
"My doctor says I should think about getting pegylated interferon and ribavirin treatment for my hep C. She says it has a good chance of helping my liver.
But I've heard that interferon has side effects that really mess you up. I have HIV, and when I started taking HIV medicines, I felt sick all day long. My doctor changed my HIV treatment, and I feel okay now, but I don't know if I want to deal with side effects like that again.
What are the side effects of hepatitis C treatment? Do most people get them?"
Pegylated interferon and ribavirin are strong drugs. Many people treated with them get side effects like:
- flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, headache, muscle pain)
- feeling very tired (fatigue)
- mood changes (depression, bad temper)
- temporary hair loss
- anemia (reduced red blood cells)
Some people have mild or no side effects. Some people have very severe side effects. For many people, the side effects become less severe over time.
"I don't know if I'm ready for all that. Do I have to start treatment for hepatitis C right away?"
This is not an easy question. There are good reasons to delay treatment - and good reasons to start treatment sooner:
Reasons to delay hepatitis C treatment
- Side effects from interferon and ribavirin could make you sick.
- Better treatments may be available in the future.
- Your hepatitis might not get worse— some people never have serious liver problems.
Reasons to start hepatitis C treatment sooner
- Treatment might not work as well later.
- Your hepatitis C could get worse very fast.
- If your liver gets too badly damaged, you might need a liver transplant.
When and how to treat your hepatitis C is a hard decision. Family needs, side effects, work, substance use, health issues, and many other parts of your life will affect your choice. Your doctor or nurse can help you look at all of the factors to decide what is best for you.
Depression is a common side effect
Severe depression can happen to anyone who is taking interferon. It is more likely in people who have a history of depression or other mental illness. If you have a history of any mental illness or substance use/abuse, tell your doctor before you begin treatment with any type of interferon. Your doctor may suggest that you start anti-depressant medicine or see a psychiatrist before you begin your hepatitis C treatment. Your doctor can also refer you to support services like hotlines or counseling so that if you do have mood changes, you can get help right away.