Although living with hepatitis C usually doesn’t involve major lifestyle changes, being diagnosed with any chronic disease can be challenging. Feelings of fear, confusion, worry, or depression are common in the beginning. If you’re feeling depressed, talk to a mental health professional. Many patients with hepatitis C never need treatment, and very few HCV patients ever progress into life-threatening liver damage. For many patients it is difficult to come to terms with learning they have viral hepatitis.
After your diagnosis is confirmed, your viral load is counted, and your biopsy results are known, you and your doctor can make a decision about treatment. Some people’s fears lead them to self-medicate with dietary supplements (including extra vitamins), some of which can harm your liver. Always let your doctor know if you want to take any kind of supplement. Read the labels of any over-the-counter medications carefully before you take them. Be sure to regularly update your doctor’s list of anything extra you may be taking. This is good advice for everyone – not just liver patients. Unless your doctor instructs you differently, there is no need to change your diet because of hepatitis C, with the exception of alcohol consumption.
Most patients newly diagnosed with HCV want to know about alcohol. They ask, "Can I have a drink every once in a while?" The answer: There is no amount of alcohol considered safe for a hep C patient. If you do drink alcohol, it’s a good idea to stop. Alcohol consumption plus infection with hepatitis C is known to rapidly accelerate progression to advanced stages of liver disease, and it also encourages the virus to replicate. Quitting drinking can extend your life and your good health by many years. If you can’t stop drinking on your own, get help. In addition to organized, traditional Twelve-step groups, you can also seek individual therapy, and there are medications available to help you stop drinking as well.
Many patients find themselves concerned about social stigma, as hepatitis C is often associated with injection drug use. According to the NIH, up to 30% of all known cases of HCV fall into the category of sporadic transmission. That is, the exact cause of infection is unknown. It’s normal to feel nervous about telling other people you have HCV. If it’s a close family member, such as a spouse or partner, you may want to have your doctor explain the virus to them. If you’re in a long-term monogamous relationship, there is generally no need to be concerned about using protection during sex. People with multiple partners should use a latex barrier of some kind – the best advice for anyone with multiple partners.
There is usually no need to inform your employer that you have hep C. Exceptions are people who work in healthcare jobs that may require disclosure of infection with any number of chronic illnesses. If you elect to treat your disease, the healthcare benefits administrator at your place of work may need to know so that you can take full advantage of sick leave, if necessary, and to help you get the medications you need in case you encounter insurance problems (this is the exception, and not the norm). Also, it’s a good idea to disclose your condition when you go to see a doctor about a separate illness, as there are some prescription drugs that may cause damage to a compromised liver. You should also notify your healthcare team before undergoing any kind of invasive procedure, such as surgery, or when getting blood drawn. Although people who perform these types of medicine are taught to use universal precautions with all patients, letting them know can help them remain unexposed to the virus.
Although the chances of transmission through personal grooming items is small (2-5%), it’s best to avoid sharing these items with family members or other close relations. Razors, manicure/pedicure items, toothbrushes and utensils are some of the items believed to carry risk for infection. Ask your doctor if you’re unsure about a personal item you share with your family, spouse, or partner.
LIVE YOUR LIFE
The best advice for living with hepatitis C is to live. For many patients, there are no recommended changes in lifestyle, with the exception of stopping alcohol consumption. There are no restrictions recommended for exercise, recreation, or pursuing your life goals. Remember, the main reason for diagnosing hepatitis C is so that you are aware of your infection, in case you need treatment, or need to stop drinking. Besides keeping up with your doctor’s schedule for office visits, blood testing, and the like, many hep C patients are able to live their lives exactly the way they did before they were diagnosed. An active and healthy lifestyle is good for everyone. Listen to your doctor. Be active, be healthy, and enjoy life.