How Hepatitis C Affects the Brain
Last updated: March 2022
Hepatitis C is a disease caused by a virus that infects the liver. In addition to damaging the liver, research also shows that hepatitis C can cause other symptoms. Some people with hepatitis C may have problems with their skin, joints, or kidneys. Now, doctors are studying how hepatitis C affects the brain.
Trouble with concentration
Many people with hepatitis C have trouble concentrating. Some people have used the words ‘brain fog’ to describe this feeling. Brain fog can include difficulty concentrating on tasks, not remembering things, and trouble finishing mental tasks.1
Research published in 2019 shows that about 20 percent of people with hepatitis C had difficulty paying attention and concentrating. About 50 percent of the people in the research study required extra time to complete a task they were given. About 30 percent of people in the research study made errors when trying to finish a task they were given.1
Doctors have noticed that hepatitis C can affect the brain even if the virus has not damaged the liver. Problems with concentration were not limited to people with hepatitis C. The research showed that people with other viruses, such as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) also had the same problems.1
Depression, anxiety, and fatigue
People with hepatitis C also have a higher risk for depression and anxiety. In addition, people with hepatitis C may have trouble controlling their actions. They also may feel insecure, or even angry and hostile, for no reason.2
Another common complaint from people with hepatitis C is fatigue, or constantly feeling tired.1 How tired they feel is different from person to person. Some people are able to attend school or work all day, but may come home feeling extremely tired. Other people may be so tired that they spend the entire day in bed.
What could be the cause?
Researchers are examining whether the hepatitis C virus causes damage to cells in the brain, which is called neurotoxicity.1
The researchers found that medication may also be a cause of ‘brain fog.’ In the past, interferon was a medication that was used to treat hepatitis C, which also caused higher rates of depression and fatigue.1 Another older hepatitis C medicine, called ribavirin, may also lead to depression and fatigue. Today, interferon and ribavirin are rarely used for people with hepatitis C.2 Your doctor will prescribe the medications he or she believes will be best for you.
Other concerns may be a factor in how hepatitis C affects the brain. People with hepatitis C may be worried about their disease and the treatments their doctor suggests. Or, they may not have the support of family or friends, making them feel lonely or anxious. Some people with hepatitis C worry about how other people will treat them if they found out they have the virus. This could cause them to avoid being around other people.1
New options are available
Today, doctors usually give people with hepatitis C medications that do not contain interferon and ribavirin. Doctors may suggest new medications, called direct-acting antivrials (DAAs), as a treatment for hepatitis C.2
It is unclear whether the ‘brain fog’ and other mental health issues that may come along with hepatitis C will improve after the virus is cleared from the body. Some studies have reported people had an improved attention span and memory. Other studies show no improvement.1
Of course, the ultimate goal for doctors is the discovery of a safe and effective hepatitis C vaccine, so that no one has the disease to begin with. Currently, a hep C vaccine does not exist.