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You can live many years with hepatitis C and not even know you have it. Without treatment, you may develop symptoms and complications of cirrhosis (liver scarring).

What to Expect if Cirrhosis Develops

In early stages of hepatitis C, your liver still has enough cells to do its many jobs. But with time, more cells may die and pressure can build up in the vein leaving the liver.

When that happens, symptoms of cirrhosis, such as jaundice, may show up.

These are other possible complications of cirrhosis:

  • Swelling in legs and abdomen, which can lead to a serious bacterial infection.
  • Enlarged blood vessels in the esophagus or stomach, which can burst and cause serious internal bleeding. This requires immediate medical attention.
  • Enlarged spleen, which may lead to a low white blood cell or platelet count.
  • Gallstones, from bile (fluid made by the liver) not flowing freely to and from the gallbladder.
  • Greater sensitivity to drugs due to the liver's inability to filter them from the blood.
  • Resistance to the hormone insulin, leading to type 2 diabetes.
  • Kidney and lung failure.
  • Problems fighting infection.

Two other serious complications of cirrhosis are liver cancer and a buildup of toxins in the brain. This can cause changes in mental and emotional function and even lead to coma.

If you have complications like these, you will need to see your doctor more often for special tests and to help you manage them. Your doctor may try a new combination of medications.

Managing Symptoms When Hepatitis Gets Worse

A variety of lifestyle changes can make a big difference in how you feel and may stop further damage to your liver.

Eat a balanced diet. No matter how advanced the cirrhosis, a well-balanced, nutritious diet is one of the best ways to stay healthier. If you have fluid buildup, your doctor may recommend restricting salt in your diet.

Avoid alcohol and certain medications, supplements, and herbs. Talk this over with your doctor to know what's safe for you.

Treating Specific Complications

It is very important to receive treatment. Some complications can be life threatening. Your doctor will respond to your specific situation and treat any conditions such as diabetes that you may develop as a result of your hepatitis.

If you have fluid buildup in your belly (ascites), your doctor may prescribe diuretics. These help remove fluids from your body. A special needle can withdraw large amounts of fluid, if needed. Because fluid buildup puts you at risk for infection, you may also need oral or intravenous (IV) antibiotics.

If you have pressure buildup in a portal vein leaving the liver, medications such as beta-blockers may help reduce blood pressure in this vein and elsewhere in the body.

If you have bleeding in the esophagus, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach, your doctor will immediately check for enlarged blood vessels. Compressing these vessels with a special device may stop any bleeding. You may need medication to help prevent future bleeding.