Hepatitis C and the Immunosuppressed

When a person is called “immunosuppressed,” it means that some or all of the person’s immune system is not working at all or it is not working as well as it should be. This could mean that a part of the body is damaged or it could mean that a part of the body cannot work properly because another part is damaged, which is causing a chain reaction.

Understanding immunosuppression

For example, if you break a finger, your finger would be suppressed. However, because your broken finger would also cause your other fingers to be picking up the slack and because your hand would not be as strong overall, your other fingers and your entire hand would be considered suppressed. When focusing on immunosuppression, it is looking at the entire immune system and the ways in which it works both individually and collectively to protect the body from illnesses, as well as the ways in which an illness can lead to temporary or permanent damage to one part of the immune system - and how that damage would impact the entire immune system.

If I am immunosuppressed, does it mean I will get hepatitis C?

No. The only way a person can get hepatitis C is through exposure to the hepatitis C virus. This exposure typically occurs through interacting with an infected person’s blood or their blood products or through exposure to dirty needles through unlicensed tattooing or IV drug use. Without exposure, a person cannot contract hepatitis C.

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However, not every person who is exposed to the hepatitis C becomes infected with the virus and not every person who becomes infected needs medication. In some cases, people can be exposed to the virus and not contract it and, up to 30% of people are able to fight off the virus on their own, without medical intervention. However, a person whose immune system is already struggling (a person who is called immunosuppressed) is more likely to contract the hepatitis C virus. They are also more likely to need medical intervention in order to rid the virus from their body. This is because that person’s body is not strong enough to provide the immune system’s full defenses against viruses.

I have hepatitis C. Does this mean I am immunosuppressed?

The answer to this varies. If you were exposed to the virus but did not become infected, your body might not have been impacted in any long-term way. If you became infected but your hepatitis C was diagnosed and treated early (called an acute hepatitis C infection), before organ damage, your body might not have been seriously impacted by the virus.

However, many people live with the hepatitis C virus for months or even years before they are diagnosed. If your body struggled with the hepatitis C virus for a prolonged period of time (called a chronic hepatitis C infection), the virus may have done damage to one or more parts of the body, including the immune system. This can leave a person more susceptible to illnesses than a healthier person. This may mean the person is more likely to catch a cold, that their colds last longer than others’, or that they contract more serious illnesses, ranging from HIV to herpes.

My doctor says I am immunosuppressed and I have hepatitis C. What should I do?

During your hepatitis C treatment, your doctor may recommend taking extra precautions in order to keep your body as healthy as possible. These precautions are likely to include protecting yourself from exposure to other illnesses. This can range from wearing gloves and a mask when encountering anyone’s blood or blood products (this is known as taking universal precautions, using only clean needles during IV drug use, and only getting tattooed at licensed tattoo shops. The precautions may also include washing your hands frequently, avoiding germ-filled places such as hospital waiting rooms or daycare centers, and getting plenty of sleep, each of which can help your body to avoid coming into contact with viruses and helping to keep germs from being introduced into your body. Your doctor may also recommend that you use multiple methods of protection if you are sexually active. This is both for your benefit and for your partner’s, as hepatitis C can be transmitted during sex if blood is exchanged, because you are more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections while your body is focused on fighting the hepatitis C virus, and because hepatitis C treatment medications cannot be taken if you or your partner become pregnant.

Your doctor may also recommend other medical tests. These can range from testing your organs, such as your kidneys and liver, to find out whether they are functioning fully and properly to testing your blood or saliva to find out whether there are other illnesses present.

It is possible that your doctor may refer you to other medical professional, ranging from doctors who focus on specific organs to doctors who focus on healthy eating. If you are given a referral, it is important to follow up with the new doctor so that you can be made fully aware of any illnesses or injuries your body is experiencing and so that medical interventions can be started as soon as possible to minimize or heal the damage.

If you are concerned about your overall health, it is important to discuss your feelings with your doctor. They will be able to provide you with information specific to your body and your medical needs, as well as to help you to understand ways in which you can best help yourself to heal and to become healthier.1-6

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