Living Well With Hepatitis C
By Jane Farrell
Hepatitis C, an inflammation of the liver caused by a virus, is a discouraging, debilitating condition. It affects an estimated 3.2 million Americans, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The illness is usually caused by receiving donated blood that is infected, having had a bad organ transplant, or sharing a needle or having sex with a person who is contaminated with the virus.
More than 75 percent of those infected are Baby Boomers, in part because authorities have been screening for infected blood only since 1992. In fact, experts recommend that anyone born between 1945 and 1965 be screened for the illness, which usually shows no symptoms until it is advanced. (Symptoms include fatigue, jaundice, and dark urine.)
Hepatitis C cases, usually diagnosed through a blood test, range from very mild, which requires only monitoring, to severe, requiring a liver transplant. If you are diagnosed with the illness, know which questions to ask your doctor. For Third Age’s advice, see the article “The Right Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Hepatitis C.”
Drug treatment, often successful, has been a combination of the antiviral medications peginterferon and ribavirin, as well as a protease inhibitor. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two other drugs, sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) and simeprevir (Olysio) to treat chronic HCV infection. However, controversy has surrounded Sovaldi, billed as a “miracle drug,” because of its exorbitant cost of $1,000 per pill.
No matter what treatment you’re getting, though, you can live more easily with Hepatitis C if you follow these strategies:
Eat and drink well. Experts, including the nonprofit Hepatitis C Association, emphasize the importance of a healthy diet. Focus on fresh fruits and vegetables as well as protein, which will help you keep up your strength. Good sources of protein include low-fat versions of yogurt and cream cheese. Avoid high-fat foods, sugar and salt, and be sure to keep hydrated. A good eating plan will help you keep up your energy levels. And skip the alcohol. Since hepatitis C affects the liver, it’s crucial to avoid anything that can further damage that organ. And it’s strictly forbidden during treatment as well as pre- and post-surgery for a transplant.
But don’t take a do-it-yourself approach to dietary supplements. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) advises against any vitamins or minerals without talking to your doctor. The agency also cautions against excessive iron intake. Iron can be damaging to your liver. If your iron levels are high, your doctor may ask you to avoid iron-rich foods such as red meats, liver and iron-fortified cereals.
Maintain a healthy weight. The VA says that weighing either too much or too little can affect the course of the illness. Use the federal (Body Mass Index) calculator to see how much you should weigh; click here.
Exercise. Regular physical activity affects you on a number of levels: It helps you maintain an even weight; it improves your mood and sense of well-being; and it can even boost your immune system. If you haven’t exercised regularly, start slowly but be consistent. A 10-minute walk is a good way to start. Try to gradually work your way up to 30 minutes of such exercise, three to five days per week.
Rest up. You don’t want to be too sedentary, but you need to get your rest as well. Try to sleep the same number of hours each night, and to get up at the same time. If you develop insomnia, your doctor may be able to suggest some ways to improve your sleep patterns.
Get the right shots. The nonprofit Immunization Action Coalition recommends that you get shots for the hepatitis A and B viruses. You may also need shots for influenza, and for shingles if you are over 60 years old. Ask your doctor about what immunizations you should get.
Ask for help with emotional problems. It’s no surprise that people diagnosed with hepatitis C often feel angry, isolated or depressed. Symptoms of depression may manifest themselves in either an emotional or physical way: You may feel fatigued all the time because of depression, or feel worthless, guilty and uninterested in everyday activities. If any of these symptoms persist, ask your doctor about medicine or counseling. You might also consider joining a support group. If you are prescribed antidepressants, be sure to tell all your health care practitioners what you are taking.
Have a support network. A loving circle of family and friends can help you deal with your illness. Don’t hesitate to reach out. You can also try to make new contacts through a community center or church.
Manage any pain. Patients may experience joint pain, often in the hands, ankles and wrists. Occasionally, cryoglobulins (proteins in the blood) can cause this. In these cases, antiviral treatments may be able to eliminate the cryoglobulins and the joint pain. It’s important to remember, though, that increased pain doesn’t mean your condition is getting worse. And some of your pain may be related to side effects from your medication, not from the illness itself. Talk with your doctor about the best method of pain relief for you.
De-stress. Lowering your stress levels can help with both physical and emotional pain. Try out several kinds until you find the right technique for you. Some people prefer deep breathing, meditation or yoga, while others de-stress through more vigorous exercise. There are many online meditation sources, including www.freemeditation.com, as well as sites that describe various kinds of relaxation techniques.
Know your sexual risks. If you have been in a long-time monogamous relationship, and your partner doesn’t have hepatitis C, there’s no need to change your sex life, the VA says. If you are worried nonetheless, use latex condoms. People who have more than one sex partner should reduce the number of their partners and use latex condoms as part of a safer-sex practice. There’s no definitive finding on whether the virus can be spread through oral or anal sex, though it’s likely that anal sex is the riskier of the two. There’s no risk of spreading the virus via hugging or kissing.
For a list of helpful resources from the VA, click here.
Jane Farrell is co-editor-in-chief of ThirdAge.