3 Steps to Protect Your Heart From Hepatitis C

Caucasian mid-adult female doctor examining African American middle-aged female patient with stethoscope.

If you live with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), you probably know the havoc it can wreak on your liver. But did you know it could do the same to your heart?. A 2015 Johns Hopkins University study followed nearly 1,000 men, 8% of whom were infected with HCV. The study found that those infected had 30% more plaque in their arteries (a condition called atherosclerosis), and were 50% more likely to have clogged arteries. Another study found that people with chronic hep C have more than double the risk of a heart attack.

About 2.7 million Americans are living with chronic hep C. Doctors have known about a link between HCV and heart disease but aren’t sure why it’s there. Hep C seems to increase your chances of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, which can all damage the heart.

If you’re worried about how HCV might affect your heart and your health, follow these three steps to get a handle on your condition.

Step 1: Get Tested

Most people who have HCV don’t even know it, so the first step is to get tested. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends hep C screening for every person between the ages of 18 and 79 years.

Testing for HCV is a two-part process. The first part checks for antibodies that your body produces to fight the infection, and that test determines if you’ve had HCV at some point in your life. The second looks for the signs of the virus itself, which can tell if you are currently infected

Step 2: Get Treated

Treatment for HCV has made great leaps in the last few years. Before better drugs hit the market late in 2013, HCV was treated with an antiviral called ribavirin in combination with injections of interferons. However, this combination is only 75% effective at most (depending upon which type of virus you have) and often causes side effects so bad that many people stop or delay treatment. 

Newer drugs, known as direct acting antiviral (DAA) medications, have a much better success rate: greater than 90% for some groups. Treatment regimens are shorter and side effects are fewer.

Step 3: Get Healthy

Your final step is to protect your heart. That means keeping tabs on your blood pressure and cholesterol, and making heart-smart lifestyle changes, including:

  • Exercise: The benefits of cardiovascular exercise for heart health are well-established, and it doesn’t take a lot. Even walking for 10-15 minutes two or three times a day will do your heart good. 
  • Diet: Fish isn’t just delicious, it’s also good for your heart. Consider a fish-and-nut-heavy Mediterranean diet. A diet like that is chock full of healthy oils that keep your heart lubed up and ticking smoothly.

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