If you have hepatitis C, you will likely have a lot of questions. One of the biggest might be, “Can I heal?” Thanks to new drugs, the answer is probably yes. But to get there, you’ll need to work closely with your doctor for a long time.
Building an open and honest relationship and asking smart questions are the keys to your success.
First, draft the right team.
Ask your primary care doctor if he treats people infected with the hepatitis C virus. If the answer is no, he may refer you to a liver doctor (hepatologist), an infectious disease expert, or both. These doctors treat people with the virus regularly, are up to date on the latest medications, and can anticipate any complications, says Alexei Gaffney Adams, MD, an infectious disease expert in Smithtown, New York.
Come prepared for questions
“A doctor won’t answer your questions if you don’t ask them,” says Bob Rice, MD, of Boston, who was cured of hepatitis C in 2015.
Think about questions before appointments and write them down. This way, you won’t forget to ask for something important.
You may want to know:
What is my genotype? This is the type of liver you have. There are six. Your doctor will develop a treatment plan based on your genotype and any other health problems you have.
What is my viral load? This tells you how much virus is in your blood. If you decide to treat hepatitis C, you will be tested during and after treatment to see if this number drops to an undetectable level and stays there.
Is my liver damaged? maybe you can be. Your doctor will likely do blood tests and may order special tests for your liver. You may even need a biopsy. This is a test that takes a sample of liver tissue to see if there is damage.
How can I protect the liver? Your doctor will likely tell you to cut back or stop drinking alcohol altogether. They may also ask you to use little or no acetaminophen. Tell them about all the medications and supplements you take. They may need some dosage adjustments, and they may ask you to stop taking certain things.
Eating a healthy diet and losing weight can help — if you need to — too. Ask if you need to be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.
You may want to bring a loved one to your appointments. It can serve as a second set of ears to remember what the doctor said. Ask them to take notes, too.
Is the treatment right for you?
If your doctor thinks you’ve recently contracted the virus, she may monitor you for 6 months to see if it’s gone, says Gaffney-Adams. About 15% to 25% of people are able to clear a so-called acute infection on their own.
But if it’s chronic (long-term), your doctor may recommend treatment. Your plan will be based on your previous test results and other health conditions.
Questions to ask your doctor include:
What medicine should I take? There are many. Your doctor will tell you which one is best for hepatitis. You may only be able to take one pill a day.
Will you succeed? Ask for the numbers, says Stella Armstrong, of Las Vegas, who was cured of hepatitis C in 2014. Ask, “What stats will this treatment cure me?” In general, current medications treat at least 90% of people.
How long will the treatment last? It depends on your condition and the medication you are taking. It may take as little as two or three months. You will need to take the medications exactly as prescribed, or they may not work. Make sure you understand what to do.
Keep all of your appointments, and get any exams or lab work your doctor orders.
What are the side effects? Learn about potential issues and rare issues. Ask which ones you’ll need to see a doctor, Gaffney Adams said, and which ones you’ll go to the emergency room.
Common side effects are mild and include stomach upset and diarrhea. But call your doctor if you have:
- breathing difficulties
- Terrible pain in your stomach
- Yellowing of the eyes or skin
Share any symptoms or side effects you’re experiencing, even if you’re not sure they’re related to the hepatitis C virus or treatment. Your doctor needs to know what’s going on to give you the best care.
Talk frankly with your doctor
If you have doubts about your treatment plan, say so right away. Your doctor may be able to explain this better and put your mind at ease. If you’re still worried, ask if there’s anything else you can try.
“You… your defender, you have to say it [the doctors] What you want,” Armstrong says. She adds that if you have symptoms that worry you and want certain tests, press your doctor to order them.
It’s important to be honest with your doctor about your lifestyle choices, too. If you drink or do drugs, say so, even though you may be embarrassed. The treatment may harm you if you take drugs or alcohol. Or your medication may not work as well.
“You should feel open enough that you can talk to your doctor about just about anything,” says Rice.
“If you don’t feel comfortable with your doctor, see another doctor.”