Have Hepatitis C? You Might and Not Even Know

About 4 million people in the U.S. have hepatitis C, and 75% of them are baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1965). Most don’t know they have it – or that they need to be screened for it.

That’s not surprising: The virus wasn’t even discovered until 1989.

It’s one of those silent infections that can take years or decades before any symptoms show up. For 85 percent of people who have the virus, it becomes a chronic infection. It can lead to chronic liver disease, cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Getting treatment can add 20 years or more to a person’s life. And new medications can actually cure hepatitis C in most people who have the virus.

Let’s find out:

  • Why boomers are five times more likely to have this virus than younger people
  • Who else is at risk
  • How to get screened for hepatitis C

Hepatitis C: What It Is, How You Get It

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis A, B and C are caused by different viruses. There are vaccines for A and B but not for hepatitis C.

The only way hepatitis C spreads is through contact with blood.

Many people contracted hepatitis C during the 1970s and 80s. Boomers have more hepatitis C because they were born before the discovery of HIV-AIDS and the current strict blood precautions. At that time, people were more likely to be exposed to other people’s blood.

You might have been exposed if you:

  • Had a blood transfusion or worked around human blood before 1992
  • Used IV drugs long ago
  • Have been on dialysis for a long time

It’s not just baby boomers who are at risk. People are still being exposed today. Some of the ways are:

  • Sharing needles for drugs
  • Needle-stick accidents in the workplace
  • Having sex with someone with the virus
  • Being born to a mother with hepatitis C
  • Getting tattoos in unregulated settings

What Happens to the Body If You Have Hepatitis C?

The liver’s job is to process blood, aid digestion and filter out things that are poisonous to your cells. When the virus is in the liver, the virus might just sit there for quite a while. But eventually it can affect any or all body systems. That includes digestive, central nervous, circulatory, endocrine and immune systems—even skin, hair and nails.

Most hepatitis C cases start without symptoms.

When the liver inflammation gets worse, fatigue, pain in the joints or abdomen, itchy skin, sore muscles, dark urine, or yellow skin or eyes might develop.

How Screening Works

One screening test may be all you need to make sure you weren’t exposed to the virus.

At least one health care organization is now flagging the charts of everyone born between 1945 and 1965 for hepatitis C screening. If yours doesn’t, ask to have the test.

  1. Start with the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) Antibody test. It’s a simple blood test. No antibodies? You’re in the clear.
  1. If antibodies are found, it means you’ve been exposed to the virus. Some people (15-25%) “clear” the virus after they were exposed. That means they don’t get a chronic infection. But that doesn’t happen for most people. So, if you have the antibodies, you need another blood test. The HCV Viral Load test measures how much virus is present. This information guides the treatment.
  1. Genetic testing is also available to find out which of the seven genotypes (kinds) of HCV is present. That information, too, helps in deciding the best treatment.

When

Get screened periodically if you’re a boomer.

Get screened periodically if you’re not a boomer but have continuing risks. Hospital workers and injection drug users are two groups with continuing risk.

Right now, there’s no recommended screening interval, so talk to your doctor.

Meet the Author

Vasanth K. Siddalingaiah, MD is a Gastroenterologist at Aurora Advanced Healthcare in Grafton, Wisconsin.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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