If you've been diagnosed with hepatitis C, your doctor has probably advised you to give up alcoholic beverages. For some people, this can be one of the most difficult lifestyle adjustments to make. But it's also one of the most important.
Several studies have shown that among people with hepatitis C, regular drinkers have higher levels of virus than nondrinkers, according to a report in the journal Hepatology. Studies also show that when people infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) stop drinking alcohol, levels of the virus decrease.
Researchers have found that alcohol causes the hepatitis C virus to multiply in the liver by increasing the activity of a protein that triggers the virus to make new copies of itself. These new copies speed the progress of the infection and raise the risk of liver damage.
Protecting your liver
There are other compelling reasons not to drink alcoholic beverages if you have hepatitis: One of the liver's jobs is to process alcohol. Too much alcohol can poison liver cells and cause a form of the disease called alcoholic hepatitis. If people continue to drink excessively, the condition can lead to permanent liver damage, or cirrhosis.
As you would expect, alcoholic hepatitis is frequently diagnosed in alcoholics. But it can also show up in some social drinkers because the liver's ability to process alcohol varies widely from person to person. Women, for instance, metabolize alcohol more slowly, so they seem to be at greater risk of suffering liver damage from drinking alcohol than men are.
If you've been diagnosed with hepatitis C, drinking alcohol adds to the strain on the liver, increasing the risk of damage to cells. That raises the danger of cirrhosis and liver cancer. If your liver has already been damaged by the virus, drinking can make things even worse.
For people being treated with interferon-alpha, there's another strong reason not to drink: The same scientists who showed that alcohol spurs the growth of the hepatitis C virus also found that alcohol weakens the effect of interferon-alpha. Drinking any amount of alcohol can interfere with treatment.
How to get help
The risks from alcohol are so serious that doctors usually advise people with drinking problems to abstain from alcohol for six months before beginning treatment.
Some people find it easy to stop drinking alcohol. But others, especially alcoholics, find it very difficult. One out of every 12 Americans -- 17.6 million in all -- suffers from alcoholism or alcohol abuse, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. For some people, a diagnosis of hepatitis C is the wake-up call that motivates them to make healthy lifestyle changes. But the added stress of having a potentially serious illness like hepatitis C can also make it harder for others to take control of their lives and stop drinking.
Taking the step
The toughest step can be admitting that there is a problem. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with hepatitis C and are struggling with a doctor's advice not to drink, ask for help. There are many resources available to help people overcome a drinking problem. Talk to your doctor, or call the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service at (800)662-HELP for information about treatment programs in your community. Acknowledging that drinking is a problem could be the most important step toward staying healthy.
Lauer, GL. et al. Hepatitis C virus infection, New England Journal of Medicine
Ho, W. et al. Alcohol increases hepatitis C virus in human cells, Hepatology,
Vento, S. et al. Does hepatitis C virus cause severe liver disease only in people who drink alcohol? Lancet Infectious Diseases.
Pessione, F. et al. Five-year survival predictive factors in patients with excessive alcohol intake and cirrhosis. Effect of alcoholic hepatitis, smoking, and abstinence, Liver International.
The American Liver Foundation, Myths vs. facts about alcohol and the liver, http://www.liverfoundation.org
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. FAQs for the General Public. http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/FAQs/General-English/default.htm