Is there a cure for hepatitis C?
Up to 85% of people who contract hepatitis C develop chronic infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Doctors can treat hepatitis C infections with medications that prevent the virus from replicating.
Doctors analyze the amount of the hepatitis C virus in a person's blood, also known as the viral load. They do this during and after treatment to determine how successful the intervention has been.
How doctors cure hepatitis C
When treating hepatitis C, a doctor will analyze the amount of the virus in a person's blood.
Successful treatment occurs once a person has a sustained virologic response (SVR).
A SVR is when the hepatitis C virus remains undetectable in a person's blood 12 weeks or more after they have completed treatment.
Having an SVR indicates a person will remain disease free for the remainder of their life. Hepatitis C infections return in less than 1% of people after an SVR.
Previously, treatment for hepatitis C was a combination of interferon injections and the antiviral medication ribavirin. This approach strengthened the body's immune system so it could more effectively fight the virus.
Now, however, hepatitis C treatments have evolved dramatically. According to the CDC, current treatment can cure over 90% of people in just 8–12 weeks.
The next part of this article discusses different treatments for chronic hepatitis C infections. People with hepatitis C have access to several treatment options.
Doctors use direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) as the standard treatment option for hepatitis C.
Unlike older treatments that focused on boosting immune activity in the body, DAAs directly attack the hepatitis C virus.
These targeted treatments kill the hepatitis C virus without negatively impacting other parts of the body.
Side effects of DAAs can include:
According to the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, DAAs have a higher risk of interacting with prescription and nonprescription medications in comparison to treatments doctors base on interferon.
DAAs use various mechanisms to fight the hepatitis C virus. These include:
DAAs are one treatment option for hepatitis C.
These DAAs prevent the virus from replicating by blocking the enzyme protease.
Protease inhibitors for hepatitis C include:
Polymerase inhibitors directly prevent the ability of the virus to replicate.
Sofosbuvir is a polymerase inhibitor doctors may use in combination with other medications to treat hepatitis C.
NS5A inhibitors directly target the NS5A protein, which has a crucial role in hepatitis C replication.
Examples of NS5A inhibitors include:
In the past, doctors used ribavirin and interferon injections to treat hepatitis C infections.
Ribavirin works by preventing the hepatitis C virus from replicating in the body. However, it does not work on its own. People must take ribavirin alongside another drug, such as interferon.
This medication has a "black box warning" from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A black box warning indicates potential hazardous or life threatening risks that the FDA associate with specific prescription medications.
Severe side effects of ribavirin include:
- anemia, or low red blood cell count
- new or worsening symptoms of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks
- new infections
- congenital malformations
- liver failure
- vision changes
- difficulty breathing
- changes in mood
- depression symptoms
- suicidal thoughts
- If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Call 911 or the local emergency number.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
Interferons were part of the standard hepatitis C treatment for several years. However, more effective and safer treatments have largely replaced these.
Interferons are naturally occurring proteins that stimulate immune activity in the body. Using interferons to treat hepatitis C can lead to flu-like symptoms and other side effects such as:
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
- changes in mood
- changes in vision
- decreased thyroid function
Choosing the right treatment
Treatments for hepatitis C continuously evolve in response to new research and improvements in medical technology. Today, people have access to numerous medicines that can cure the infection quickly and safely.
The number of available treatments can seem overwhelming to people. However, with the help of a doctor, a person can narrow down the treatment options best suited to their needs.
A doctor will consider several factors before prescribing treatment. These include:
- the viral load, or amount of virus in the body
- the extent of liver damage, such as scarring, or cirrhosis
- a person's response to any previous hepatitis C treatments
- the presence of other health conditions
- the genotype of the hepatitis C virus
Hepatitis C has six distinct genotypes. A genotype refers to the combination of genes in an organism, including viruses. Identifying the genotype of the hepatitis C virus is a crucial first step in the treatment process.
The key to successful treatment of hepatitis C lies in early diagnosis. People can speak to a doctor if they suspect they may have come into contact with the virus, or if they experience symptoms of a hepatitis C infection.
People who have hepatitis C can follow these guidelines to help manage their symptoms:
- avoid liver damaging substances, such as alcohol and some medicines
- complete the entire round of treatment a doctor prescribes
- avoid or quit smoking
- maintain a healthy body weight
- manage any other health conditions
Hepatitis C is a bloodborne virus, which means that the virus spreads when the blood of someone with the infection enters the bloodstream of someone without it.
Although rare, hepatitis C can pass from a mother to their baby and between other individuals through sexual intercourse.
Currently, no vaccine exists for hepatitis C, but people can lower their risk of infection by:
- avoiding or stopping the use of injectable drugs
- avoiding sharing or reusing needles
- following safety regulations when working in a high risk environment, such as a hospital
- using condoms during sex
- limiting their number of sexual partners
A person with hepatitis C may experience fever, fatigue, and a loss of appetite.
According to the CDC, hepatitis C infections resolve spontaneously in 15–25% of cases. However, the remaining majority of individuals with the infection will develop chronic hepatitis C.
People may have hepatitis C without knowing it because it does not always cause symptoms for many years until it has damaged the liver.
Symptoms doctors associate with hepatitis C include:
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- dark colored urine
- clay colored stools
- joint pain
- yellowing of the skin and eyes
Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C infections can lead to liver scarring, liver failure, and liver cancer. However, current hepatitis C treatments can cure nine out of 10 people in 8–12 weeks, according to the CDC.
Several safe and effective treatments for hepatitis C exist. With the help of a healthcare professional, people can find the best treatment options to help manage their symptoms.
A person can lower their risk of developing a hepatitis C infection by following the prevention guidelines this article lists.