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Medical Care

The Right Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Hepatitis C

By Sondra Forsyth

The Centers for Disease Control has designated May as Hepatitis Awareness Month. One goal of that campaign is to let Boomers know that of the more than three million Americans infected with hepatitis C, over 75% are in their 50s and 60s. You can find out the extent of your risk with this 5-minute online assessment from the CDC.

If you are wise enough to get tested and you learn that you do have hep C, don’t panic! Yes, the disease is potentially serious but the condition doesn’t have to be a death sentence if you ask the right questions and get proper treatment as soon as possible. (P.S. If you are still resisting getting tested, rectify that situation right away! Hep C can be a “silent disease” with no symptoms.)

Once you’ve been diagnosed, your PCP can give you a referral for a hepatologist who specializes in liver diseases. Before your appointment, write down all your questions either in a notebook or on your tablet. Bring the list with you and take notes. Also, consider asking your spouse or a friend to come along in order to make sure you ask all the questions on your list. Even if you’re usually pretty assertive, you might get rattled and clam up in the presence of a physician!

Here are some key questions to ask:

Q. What is the extent of my hepatitis C infection?

Why you need to know this:

Many people who have chronic hep C don’t have any symptoms until the liver is already damaged. If you contracted hep C from a blood transfusion or organ donation before screening went into effect in 1992, you could have had a silent infection for years. The same could be true if you got a tattoo or body piercing at an unlicensed establishment or if you ever — even once — shared a needle for a recreational drug.

 

Q. What are my treatment options?

Why you need to know this:

If you have been lucky (or smart!) enough to be diagnosed early, you may not need treatment. Your doctor may recommend a “watch and wait” scenario in which you get follow-up blood tests to look for liver problems.

Another possibility is that your doctor will prescribe antiviral medications, probably a combination of peginterferon and ribavirin. You’ll take the medication for a specified amount of time, usually about a month to six weeks, to clear the infection from your body.

However, you may need a liver transplant either from a deceased or a living donor if your liver is seriously damaged. Living donors give one-third of the organ to the patient. Adult children frequently volunteer to be donors for their parents. As you might imagine, the parents often balk at this idea! Even so, consultations with specially trained healthcare personnel can help with the decision.

 

Q. Will I have side effects from the antiviral medication?

Why you need to know this:

For most patients, side effects are minor ones such as fatigue and occasional headaches, but if you ever have trouble breathing or have hives or notice swelling in your face, lips, or tongue, you need to call your doctor immediately.

 

Q. How much will my medications cost?

Why you need to know this:

A study published in the April 2014 issue of The American Journal of Medicine reported that doctors typically don’t ask if patients can afford prescribed medication. You need to be proactive in order to find out whether your insurance, including Medicare Part D if that’s your plan, will cover the medication and how much the co-pay will be. Also, be aware that you will still need to take antivirals if you have a liver transplant and you’ll also need to take anti-rejection drugs. The cost for these drugs can be substantial so you don’t want to be taken by surprise.

 

Q. Is it possible that I will infect members of my household?

Why you need to know this:

According to the CDC, this is possible but not very likely. The CDC site says that if the virus is spread within a household, “it is most likely a result of direct, through-the-skin exposure to the blood of an infected household member.” The CDC recommends cleaning any blood spills, including dried blood, with a solution of one part bleach and 10 parts water. Be sure to wear gloves when cleaning up spills. Keep in mind that the virus can survive on surfaces for as long as four days. The good news, though, is that you can feel free to hug and kiss and hold hands with your loved ones! You also don’t have to worry about contagion if you end up coughing and sneezing.

 

Q. Is Drinking alcohol safe for me?

Why you need to know this:

According to the Mayo Clinic, you ought to give up that evening glass of wine. Alcohol hastens the progression of liver disease.

 

Q. Will my hep C meds interact with my other meds?

Why you need to know this:

Drug interactions can be dangerous. Be sure to tell your doctor about everything you take, including herbal supplements and other over-the-counter products. You can also talk with your pharmacist about this issue. Doctors know which drugs to prescribe, but pharmacists are specially trained to help you avoid interactions.

 

Those are the most important general questions, but why not talk these suggestions over with someone who knows you well? You may come up with personal questions that have to do with your lifestyle, any future travel plans, and your employment situation. Doctors’ appointments are typically quite short these days, but you’ll stand the best chance of getting all the information you need if you are are well prepared in advance. The best of luck – and be sure to come back to ThirdAge on Thursday, May 8th when you’ll learn how to live well with your hep C.

Sondra Forsyth is Co-Editor-in-Chief of ThirdAge.com. She is a National Magazine Award winner with scores of major magazine bylines and twelve books to her credit. Her most recent book is “Candida Cleanse: The 21-Day Diet to Beat Yeast and Feel Your Best”. Sondra was Executive Editor at “Ladies’ Home Journal,” Features Editor at “Cosmopolitan,” and Articles Editor at “Bride’s.” A former ballerina, she founded Ballet Ambassadors, an arts-in-education company in New York City, and served as Artistic Director for 16 years.