By Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN
Medication is only one part of an effective treatment plan for hepatitis C (or hep C, also known as HCV, for hepatitis C virus). Though it may seem insignificant compared to the powerful medicines you may be taking for HCV, your lifestyle plays a role in your treatment, as well. This means that making some changes to your everyday habits — including regular exercise in your usual routine, learning how to reduce your stress — just may make a difference in your treatment. Here are eight basic, but important, suggestions that will help you feel your best while getting treated for — and hopefully cured of — your hep C.
This is the most important thing you can do to help make your hep C treatment go smoothly. “Once the patient is on treatment, the compliance is very important,” says Hwan Yoo, MD, a liver specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD. Don’t miss any doses, and try to take the medications at the same time every day.
Don’t miss your follow-up appointments, either. These tell you and your specialist how well the virus is responding and, at the same time, give you the chance to address any concerns about your treatment, Yoo adds.
If you find it hard to follow your treatment plan, speak with your specialist to get help.
Moving your body is an important part of being healthy, and it’s no different if you have hep C. Exercise may not be easy at first, especially if you’re feeling tired or weak, but by starting slowly, you can build up your strength while helping your body heal.
Physical activity may help you in other ways. Exercise can reduce depression and anxiety, relieve stress, ease insomnia and encourage your appetite (which may dip because of medication-induced nausea). Also, being active may help you lose weight, which can improve your liver health if you’re overweight.
Sleep helps revitalize your body and aids in healing from just about any illness, hep C included. Unfortunately, both the virus and its treatment may affect your ability to sleep. If you’re experiencing insomnia, speak with your specialist about it. In the meantime, here are some common tips to help you fall asleep and stay asleep.
There’s no specific hep C diet but eating well — that means plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains instead of processed ones, and lean meats like chicken and fish — helps you stay healthier overall. A nutritious diet can even lead to a liver that functions better and is less likely to develop scarring (cirrhosis) as a result of your hep C infection. You should avoid fatty, salty and sugary foods, too, since they can make your liver have to work harder to keep your body free of toxins.
If you think you need help to change the way you eat, see a nutritionist. This can be particularly helpful if you experience the nausea or lack of appetite associated with some hep C drugs.
Don’t drink alcohol while you’re on hep C treatment. Alcohol is broken down in your liver, which is already physically stressed because of both the virus and the treatment. The virus could also cause more damage to your liver if you smoke. Plus, quitting benefits your overall health, too.
Keeping your mental stress under control may seem easier said than done, especially when you’re on treatment for a serious illness. Yet it’s an essential part of helping yourself and deserves your focus. Stress takes a toll on the body, and when you’re going through treatment, you want to minimize those effects. Some people have success with taking up a new hobby or going to the gym more regularly. Others learn specific techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or a breathing practice. Check out these 5 quick ideas for stress reduction.
If anxiety and stress start to feel overwhelming, see a counselor or therapist.
Carol Peters, NP, a nurse practitioner in the Liver Research Institute at Banner University Medical Center Tucson, AZ, encourages her patients to make sure they’ve been vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B before starting treatment for hep C. “Hepatitis A and B are preventable viruses, so they might as well be protected. They don’t need another virus [affecting their liver].”
If you’re not sure if you've been vaccinated for hepatitis B (hep B) before, make sure you get tested: The hep C drugs known as direct-acting antivirals or DAAs can sometimes cause a flare-up, or reactivation, of hep B. So knowing your hep B status is crucial.
Because of the pressure hep C puts on your health, you should also get a regular flu shot (that means every fall or winter, before flu season starts), and stay current on the adult whooping cough and tetanus vaccine, known as Tdap (after the first dose, you need a booster every decade).
Depending on your treatment medications and how long it’s been since your diagnosis, your specialist may want to give you the pneumococcal vaccines. There are two types; talk with your specialist to determine which is the better option for you.
Because of some of the ways in which hep C is spread, there has been stigma attached to the diagnosis. If this makes you hesitate to share your hep C status with family members and trusted friends, remember that this condition has affected people from all walks of life, and that support from loved ones could be key to your treatment success. Don’t be ashamed to share what you’re going through.
You can also join an online support group, like MedHelp's Hepatitis C Community, to meet other people who know what it’s like.
Treatment for hepatitis C affects your whole body — not just your blood and your liver. By taking care of yourself in other ways, you’re giving your body the best possible chance for a cure.
Published on March 1, 2016. Updated on April 5, 2017.
Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN, has written articles for numerous healthcare sites and is the author of Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Drugs & How to Take Them Safely.
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