If you're like most people, you've heard of hepatitis but aren't sure what it is or who it can affect. Surprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimate that about three to four million Americans have a type of viral hepatitis (liver inflammation), but most don't know they have it. Which population is most impacted? Baby boomers.
"Hepatitis C is the largest infectious disease outbreak of our time because it lived in our blood and tissue supply for years until we identified it in 1989. Before that, people were unknowingly exposed to hepatitis C,” reports Jill Wolf, LCSW, the hepatitis C program director for the Caring Ambassadors Program, a national nonprofit organization that helps educate communities about the disease.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infection that causes liver inflammation. There are five different types of hepatitis, some of which are caused by viruses. In the United States, we mostly see hepatitis A, B and C, with hepatitis C being the most common type. Hepatitis C is transmitted through contact with infected blood.
The virus – which usually produces no obvious symptoms for decades – remains in the blood of about 75 percent of those exposed. If left undiagnosed and untreated, the hepatitis C virus can cause scarring (fibrosis), cirrhosis, liver cancer and end stage liver disease. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer.
"Unfortunately, the liver doesn't let you know there’s a problem until it's really, really sick," says Wolf. "But that can be prevented by getting tested, treated and cured for hepatitis C."
What are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?
Most people who have hepatitis C don’t have any symptoms for years. Many don’t know that they are infected until their liver is already damaged. Symptoms of an acute infection include:
Symptoms of severe liver disease include mental confusion and swelling of your feet, ankles, and belly.
Who Should Get the Hepatitis C Test?
It’s recommended that all people born between 1945 and 1965 get tested for hepatitis C.
Proper blood screening for hepatitis C was in place by 1992. But in the years prior to that, you could have been exposed if you:
If you're a baby boomer, it's important to ask your doctor for a hepatitis C screening test at your next physical exam. (The blood test is usually covered by insurance.)
You can be reinfected with the hepatitis C virus even if you've been successfully treated in the past.
A hepatitis C screening test is different from a liver function test, which evaluates how the liver is working. A liver function test, often run during a routine physical exam, is not a good test for identifying the presence of the hepatitis C virus.
Why Should Baby Boomers Be Tested for Hepatitis C?
Besides being born between 1945 and1965, you can be at even greater risk for Hepatitis C if you:
Are a Vietnam War veteran
Experimented with drugs, even one time (snorted or injected)
Have a tattoo (Exposure could be the result of shared needles or ink pot.)
Received a manicure or pedicure with non-sterile, shared tools
What is the Hepatitis C Screening?
The hepatitis C screening test is a blood test that checks to see if you have antibodies (substances produced in the body in response to viruses) to the hepatitis C virus in your bloodstream. The antibiodies show you’ve been exposed to the hepatitis C virus. If your test comes back positive for the antibodies, an additional blood test can confirm whether the virus is still active, or chronic in your body.
How Do You Treat Hepatitis?
Oral medications are taken to help treat the hepatitis C virus. They work in people with early and late stages of the disease. These medications also have few side effects.
"Prior to 2014, treatment for hepatitis C was intense and worked only half the time. Now, you can take one pill a day for eight to 12 weeks to get rid of the virus from your blood and eliminate the disease," says Wolf. "It’s literally a cure."
If you are a baby boomer, ask your doctor about getting the one-time hepatitis C screening test. And, if you're concerned about people in your life who are baby boomers, be sure to share this information with them, too. Spread the word on Facebook!