If medical experts are correct, hepatitis C may soon be a thing of the past. The contagious liver disease comes in two forms: acute and chronic. Acute hepatitis C typically develops within a few months of coming into contact with the hepatitis C virus, typically through blood. Chronic hepatitis C is more long-term, developing over time the longer the virus stays in your system. Because an acute hepatitis C infection has few noticeable symptoms, often an acute infection can become a chronic one, leading to – among other things – an increased risk for liver cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that acute and chronic hepatitis C infections, combined, affect more than 3 million Americans.
While it remains the most-common form of hepatitis, hepatitis C has been on the decline for the last two decades. Gastroenterologist Dr. William Lyles from Smoky Mountain Gastroenterology says increased education and the development of better treatments have led to the near-eradication of hepatitis C. “The treatments now are just phenomenal compared to what they were in the 1980s,” Lyles said. “Back then, we were happy with a 16 percent response rate. Now, the newer drugs can generate a response rate of 95 percent or higher. We used to use interferon-based therapies, and those carried a lot of side effects. We used to have to treat with those for up to a year for some patients, but this is really the golden age of hepatitis C treatment. With some of the newer, non-interferon-based therapies, a patient can take as little as one pill a day for just a few weeks,” he explained. “That’s phenomenal when compared to a year of treatment, and the side effects are much more manageable for patients than interferon-based treatments which could be very harsh,” he added.
Lyles insists that, with these newer medications, hepatitis C could be far less of a concern than it once was. “The most important thing to do is – if you have a risk factor such as tattoos, body piercings, a history of drug use or a blood transfusion before 1990 – see your primary care physician, and be tested. If you test positive for hepatitis C, you’ll be referred to a gastroenterologist or an infectious disease doctor to begin treatment. If you’re found to have it, you definitely should do everything you can to manage the risks of someone else coming into contact with your blood, including going as far as avoiding sharing razors or toothbrushes,” Lyles said. “If hepatitis C goes unchecked, the majority of those patients will develop cirrhosis and, potentially, to end-stage liver disease, which will require a liver transplant. If you can catch hepatitis C earlier through a screening with your primary care physician, the treatments are there to essentially eradicate the disease,” he added.
Lyles sees patients at Smoky Mountain Gastroenterology, located at 355 Blount Memorial Physician Office Building in Maryville. For more information, call 865-980-5060.