When you have hepatitis C, it’s possible to go for years without knowing you’re infected. If you feel fine, does that mean you don’t need to treat the infection?
It’s important to understand how the virus works. After you’re infected, chronic hepatitis C may silently hurt your body. It can take years or even decades to feel symptoms. Once you do, the virus has probably damaged your body in a number of ways.
Treatments for hepatitis C can stop the virus, even before it makes you feel sick. That can help you reverse or prevent health problems and keep you from spreading the virus to other people.
The infection hurts your liver the most. The virus makes it swell. Without treatment of a chronic infection, about 75% to 85% of people who have it get a long-term infection called chronic hepatitis C. If the condition goes untreated, it can lead to:
- Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver
- Liver cancer
- Liver failure
Blood and Vessel Problems
People with hepatitis C often get a condition called cryoglobulinemia. This happens when certain proteins in your blood stick together in cold weather. They can build up in vessels and block blood flow, which causes swelling and damage. The condition can affect your skin, organs, nerves, and joints.
Hepatitis C also can cause problems with blood itself. You may not make enough white blood cells, which fight infections, or platelets, which help your blood clot.
The infection can also make you bruise easily or get red or purple spots under your skin. Those are signs of a bleeding disorder called immune thrombocytopenic purpura.
People with hepatitis C are more likely to get non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That’s a type of cancer that starts in the immune system. The virus also raises your odds of bile duct cancer.
If you don’t treat hep C, it can lead to fatal conditions like liver failure and liver cancer.
High Blood Sugar
Hepatitis C can make it hard for your body’s cells to take in sugar from the food you eat. Your pancreas will pump out more insulin, a hormone that helps move sugar into your cells. That means too much sugar will stay in your blood. Over time, your body could stop responding to the effects of insulin. Both can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Joint and Muscle Pain
A condition called arthralgia causes joint pain and is common in people with hepatitis C. It’s different from arthritis, which causes pain and swelling in joints. But infected people can also get hepatitis C-related arthritis.
Fibromyalgia, which causes body aches and muscle pain, is also common in people with hepatitis C.
People with hepatitis C are about 40% more likely to get long-term kidney disease than those who are not infected. If you have untreated hep C and kidney problems, you’re 2 times more likely to need regular treatments to filter your blood, called dialysis, in the future.
Hepatitis C is linked to hardening of the arteries, also called atherosclerosis. It raises your chances for a stroke, heart attack, and other heart problems.
Mental Health Troubles
Hep C can take a toll on your mental health as well. You may have trouble remembering things or a hard time paying attention. You could also feel very tired and worn out.
Nerve damage called peripheral neuropathy causes the feeling of pins and needles, numbness, or burning, mostly in your hands or feet. Another condition, called paresthesia, is a feeling of tingling or numbness in your skin.
This painful but rare condition causes you to form new bone faster than your body can absorb it. It mostly affects your feet and legs.
The hep C infection activates your immune system so it can fight the virus. As the virus multiplies in your blood and liver, your immune system stays on all the time. This can lead to a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, along with other rheumatic diseases.
Hep C-related skin conditions can cause bumps, blisters, hair loss, itching, and patches that look light or dark. One common one is vitiligo, a condition that causes loss of color on the face, elbows, knees, and wrists.
Treating Hepatitis C Matters
When you see your doctor and start treatment for a chronic hep C infection, you can prevent these problems, improve them, or keep them from getting worse. New drugs can clear the virus from your body in a few months with fewer side effects than older medicines. If there’s no virus in your blood 3 months after treatment, you’re considered cured.
Getting rid of the infection protects others, too. Hepatitis C spreads through blood-to-blood contact. You could infect a loved one if you accidentally use their toothbrush or cut yourself and don’t clean up the blood properly. People who get hep C treatment greatly lower the odds that they will pass the virus to someone else.
If you aren’t sure if you have hepatitis C, talk to your doctor to see if you should get tested.
Life Expectancy and Prognosis
Can you die from hepatitis? Technically, the complications of chronic hepatitis C are fatal. About 30,000 people in the U.S. die each year from cirrhosis. Worldwide, about 400,000 people die each year form cirrhosis and liver cancer.
How long can you live with untreated hep C? The disease affects everyone differently, so there’s no rule. But about 70% to 80% of people with will get chronic help C. Within 20 years, about 20% to 30% of those people will get cirrhosis. From there, it depends on what type of cirrhosis you have, your treatment, and if you can get a liver transplant.
Can hepatitis C go away on its own? Yes. From 15% to 20% of people with hep C clear it from their bodies without treatment. It’s more likely to happen in women and people who have symptoms. But it usually happens between 4 and 18 months after symptoms start.