An estimated 2.4 million people in the United States are living with hepatitis C, a virus more likely to affect the Baby Boomer generation than any other age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Three in four people with hepatitis C—or 75%—were born between 1945 and 1965, which is why the CDC recommends everyone born during those years get tested.
May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, with May 19 designated as Hepatitis Testing Day. Keep reading to learn more about the virus, how it is diagnosed, and the new treatments available for many who are infected.
What is Hepatitis C?
As the CDC explains, hepatitis C is a serious infection caused by the virus hepatitis C. Over time and without treatment, the infection can cause liver damage or even liver cancer. In fact, hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer and the top cause of liver transplants.
Experts aren’t sure why, but people born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than people of other ages. Many became infected in the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, most new hepatitis C infections are due to sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs. In the past, the virus was spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants, but the virus was virtually wiped out of the blood supply by 1992, thanks to better blood supply screening. Hepatitis C can also be spread within a household if someone comes into contact with the blood of someone else who is infected, but this is much less common. Hepatitis C cannot be spread by casual contact, kissing, hugging, sneezing, coughing, breastfeeding, or sharing food, eating utensils, or glasses.
Testing and diagnosis
Many people with hepatitis C live with it for years, or even decades, without knowing it. That’s because the infection progresses very slowly and may cause no symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they may be a sign of advancing liver disease and include:
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored stool
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Joint pain
Often, a hepatitis C infection isn’t diagnosed until high liver enzyme levels are detected or if it’s detected during routine screening of a blood donation.
There are several blood tests that can be used to screen for hepatitis C. Mayo Clinic recommends testing for:
- Anyone who has ever injected or inhaled illicit drugs
- Anyone who has abnormal liver function test results with no identified cause
- Babies born to mothers with hepatitis C
- Health care and emergency workers exposed to blood or accidental needle sticks
- People with hemophilia treated with clotting factors before 1987
- People who have undergone long-term hemodialysis treatments
- People who received blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992
- Sexual partners of anyone diagnosed with hepatitis C
- People with HIV infection
- Anyone born from 1945 to 1965
- Anyone who has been in prison
The longer a person lives with hepatitis C—undiagnosed or untreated—the more likely they are to develop life-threatening liver disease.
There have been significant advancements in just the past few years in treating hepatitis C. In many cases, the virus can be eliminated after 8-12 weeks of treatment. Newer medications provide better outcomes with fewer side effects. Treatments and medications are always evolving, so it’s best to speak with a health care specialist about options.
There are also steps those diagnosed with hepatitis C can take to protect their liver, such as not drinking alcohol, avoiding medications that can damage the liver, and keeping others from coming into contact with blood (for example, don’t share toothbrushes or razors, don’t donate blood, and use condoms during intercourse).
Are you at risk?
The CDC has developed an online, five-minute risk assessment screening you can take to help figure out how high your risk for hepatitis is.
To learn more about symptoms, testing, and the impact of the infection, visit our Wellness page and search “hepatitis C.”
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