Living with Hepatitis C: Staying Healthy
Many people feel living with Hepatitis C is negative or a death sentence. The good news is that most people who have chronic Hepatitis C infection feel well and remain healthy for many years, even decades. About 15-25% of people diagnosed with Hep C will naturally clear the virus from their bodies without treatment. That means about 80% will continue to live with the virus, of which 55%-85% will live with chronic infection. This means that they will have re-occurring symptoms lasting six months or more.
Of those who are chronically infected it is estimated that 70% will develop chronic liver disease. This may be cirrhosis or liver cancer. In persons with cirrhosis, the liver begins to shrink in size and also hardens (scarring of the liver). This means that the liver can no longer serve as your body's filter of poisons or toxins (like alcohol, drugs, prescription medications, pollutants, exhaust, paint fumes, pesticides, aerosol hairsprays, etc.) because scar tissue is blocking the filtration system. As cirrhosis worsens, almost all liver function is lost. The liver becomes even harder and smaller. Fluid accumulation, or build up, in the abdomen and legs may occur. Bleeding from large veins in the intestinal tract is common, and mental slowing may also occur.
There are four stages of cirrhosis and not everyone will progress through all four. In stages 0-2 there is little effect or damage to the liver. In stage 3, scarring has worsened causing blood flow through the liver to be altered and fluids may begin to back up in the liver causing the liver to discolor. In stage 4, abnormal blood flow can result in a build up of fluid in the abdomen (known as ascites) causing severe bloating. Failure of the liver cells to function in this stage often result in symptoms such as generalized weakness, anorexia, malaise, weight loss, and jaundice, a yellowing of the skin.
Why do I need to take care of my liver?
Your liver is your body's power plant. It is vital to good health and you cannot live without it. It is the largest internal organ in your body. It is about the size of a football and is on the right side of the body up under the rib cage. Blood leaving the stomach and intestines passes through the liver before reaching the rest of the body. The liver's job is to filter the toxins out of your body and to change nutrients and drugs into forms that are easier of the body to use.
Here are some of the vital functions of the liver:
- Helps digest food and absorb nutrients;
- Helps control bleeding by making clotting factors;
- Makes body chemicals such as fats, cholesterol, and protein;
- Stores sugar and vitamins for our bodies to use when needed; and
- Takes toxins and alcohol out of the blood and turns them into substances that can easily be eliminated from the body.
Here are some tips to help keep your liver healthy:
- Avoid alcohol
- People with Hepatitis C need to reduce or eliminate even small amounts of alcohol from their lives. Alcohol and Hepatitis C can lead to serious liver disease mentioned above. Large amounts of alcohol over time cause liver cells to become scarred or die, leading to many liver problems from fatty liver to cirrhosis. If you need help talk to your health care provider about what programs are available to help you eliminate alcohol from your life.
- Don't use illegal drugs
- Drug use affects your body and alters your decision-making processes leading you to possible risky behaviors for HIV and or another type of Hepatitis. If you decide to treat your for Hepatitis C, the use of illegal drugs may also affect how well the treatment will work for you. Some physicians may require sobriety before they will treat you.
- Talk to your health care provider before taking medications
- It is important to maintain an open and honest relationship with your health care provider because even prescription medications and over the counter drugs may affect the liver. The same is true for some vitamins, minerals (such as iron), dietary supplements and even Tylenol.
- Get vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B
- Hepatitis A and B are two other viruses that can affect the liver and cause damage, especially in people who have Hepatitis C. But unlike Hepatitis C, taking the vaccine can prevent them. Talk to your health care provider about being vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B.
- Eat a healthy diet
- Generally, people with Hepatitis C who do not have advanced liver disease should develop a consistent diet with plenty of nutrients and avoid fad diets. If you have cirrhosis or advanced liver disease, you may need to follow a more specialized diet and work with your health care providers to ensure that you are eating and drinking the foods that best manage your symptoms. Try to also drink about 8 glasses of non-alcoholic liquids each day. Water is the best choice.
- Some people who DO NOT have Hepatitis C but live an unhealthy lifestyle may develop fatty liver or alcoholic liver. Fatty liver develops from eating too much fatty foods. Alcoholic liver develops from abuse of alcohol over a long period of time.