Untreated hepatitis C can cause liver damage and other serious complications. Treatment with antiviral medications can usually cure the infection.

Hepatitis C (hep C) is a viral infection that affects your liver. It can lead to acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) illness.

The reasons to treat hep C are clear. Without treatment, a chronic hep C virus (HCV) infection can lead to serious complications such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, hep C caused about 290,000 deaths in 2019, mostly due to liver-related conditions. Hep C is also associated with other health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and kidney disease.

In the United States, more than 2 million adults have an HCV infection. But with antiviral therapy, most people can expect a favorable outlook. Hep C treatment is associated with a decreased risk of death from liver-related causes and from all causes.

Learn about 5 important reasons to treat hep C as early as possible.

The goal of treatment is to prevent long-term liver damage and cure the infection. In most cases, a direct-acting antiviral medication regimen can do that. These medications are typically well tolerated and highly effective, with a cure rate of about 95%.

An HCV infection is considered cured when you have a sustained virologic response (SVR) after 3 months of treatment. That means that tests can’t detect the virus in your blood. Getting rid of the virus is associated with decreases in illness and death. A typical life expectancy is possible even if you have advanced liver damage.

Hep C attacks your liver. This can be happening even if you don’t have symptoms. Without treatment, hep C can cause cirrhosis, a condition in which scar tissue blocks blood flow in your liver. And if you have cirrhosis, your liver — which processes blood and filters toxins — can’t perform as it should.

Over time, chronic inflammation and buildup of scar tissue can lead to liver failure (also known as end stage liver disease). This means your liver has lost most or all of its ability to function. At some point, a liver transplant is the only cure.

According to the American Liver Foundation, chronic hep C is the most common reason for a liver transplant. In addition, hep C raises the risk of developing liver cancer.

Once antiviral treatment gets you to SVR, your liver enzymes will generally return to where they were before you contracted hep C and your liver function should start to improve. If you have mild liver damage, it may heal, but more severe damage may not.

Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent these and other complications.

Hep C affects more than your liver. About 75% of people with hep C develop issues unrelated to the liver (extrahepatic manifestations). These can include:

  • insulin resistance
  • type 2 diabetes
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • cardiovascular disease
  • chronic kidney disease

Chronic hep C infection may also play a role in a rare disorder called mixed cryoglobulinemia. It’s an immune system dysfunction that involves abnormal proteins in your blood.

In addition, about 50% of people with hep C develop symptoms such as:

  • fatigue
  • depression
  • disorders that affect the ability to think

According to a 2019 research review, treating hep C can improve or even resolve some of these issues, lowering the risk of illness and death.

Less than 1% of people who reach SVR experience a relapse. That’s why your doctor may want to check your blood again within the next year. Getting to SVR means there’s no virus in your bloodstream, so you can’t transmit it.

But it’s important to remember that SVR doesn’t protect you from reinfection. You can get hep C again.

Hep C is a bloodborne virus. It passes from one person to another through blood and blood products. It’s possible to contract the virus by using shared drug equipment or improperly sterilized medical or tattoo equipment.

Even while you’re undergoing treatment, if you haven’t yet reached SVR, you can still transmit the virus. Follow your doctor’s recommendations to avoid this.

Currently, there’s no vaccine to protect against hep C. But you might want to consider getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.

Antiviral therapy is safe, and most people tolerate it well. A 2019 research review suggests that getting rid of the virus is associated with better quality of life.

Some studies suggest that treatment with antiviral therapy helps improve:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • alexithymia (difficulty recognizing emotions)
  • emotional state, physical functioning, and general well-being

In one 2018 study, people who took antiviral medication for hep C experienced improvements in anxiety, depression, and overall quality of life. Study participants noted that improvements began shortly after they started therapy and increased after they reached SVR.

Hep C is a serious health condition that can become chronic and life threatening. But getting treatment can help prevent liver damage and other health complications. Antiviral treatment is also known to improve mental well-being and overall quality of life.

In most people who complete antiviral treatment, the virus is cured and a typical life span is possible.