Here’s what doctors currently know about this liver-damaging virus.
Hearing you have hepatitis C can come as a shock. You may not have any noticeable symptoms, and you might even be living a healthy life full of kale salads and regular visits to the yoga studio.
So what gives? Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by a virus. Typically, it’s spread from person to person through blood contact, such as through sharing needles or sex.
But you can also become infected if you received donated blood, blood products, or organs before 1992 (when better screening procedures were implemented), by working in healthcare and being injured by a needlestick, or by being born from a mother with hepatitis C.
Because advances in hepatitis C prevention and screening came after the 1980s, baby boomers are five times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than other adults. Transmission of the virus was highest between 1960 and 1980, according to the CDC. That’s why experts recommend that all baby boomers get tested at least once—no matter what. (Find out more about the link between baby boomers and hepatitis C here.)
“Because the virus can last for decades without causing any symptoms, many boomers were likely infected a long time ago and have absolutely no idea they are carrying a potentially serious illness,” says Paul Knoepflmacher, MD.
Around 2.7 to 3.9 million people have chronic hepatitis C in the United States. Acute hepatitis C lasts about six months after exposure to the virus, and about 75 to 85 percent of acute hepatitis C infections progress to the chronic stage. A chronic hep C infection can last a lifetime and cause serious and permanent damage to the liver. This is why testing and treatment is so crucial.
Although hepatitis C can be serious, newer medications can cure the virus and prevent further complications, such as liver damage. If you have not yet been tested and fit into one or more of the associated risk factors, talk to your doctor so you can learn your status.
Dr. Knoepflmacher is a clinical instructor of medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he also maintains a private practice.
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Hepatitis C is a liver disease
that's caused by a virus.
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It's spread from person to
person through blood contacts.
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There is no evidence that Hepatitis C
is spread through casual contact
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like kissing or hugging, sneezing or
coughing, or sharing food or utensils.
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Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic.
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In most people an acute infection leads
to a chronic infection that can last for
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a lifetime if not treated.
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Untreated Hepatitis C can
cause serious liver problems,
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such as scarring of the liver,
which we call cirrhosis, or liver cancer.
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In the past, treatment of
Hepatitis C was challenging for
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us because the medications took longer,
had more side effects, and
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were much less effective than
the new drugs available now.
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The newer medicines have improved
the treatment dramatically.
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In many cases, treatment lasts for just
12 weeks and they have a 95% cure rate.
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But the problem remains that too many
people with Hepatitis C don't know they
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have it, and if you don't know you
have it you can't get treated.
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Most people with acute Hepatitis C
have no symptoms, or very mild or
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vague symptoms that could
be easily mistaken for
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something else, like feeling tired,
nauseous, or having muscle aches.
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So it's critical to get tested for
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Hepatitis C if you have any
potential risk factors.
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These include anyone who used
injection drugs in the past,
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even if it was only once or
a long, long time ago.
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Anyone who received donated blood,
blood products, or organs before 1992,
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which is when we started better
screening procedures for Hepatitis C.
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Anyone who got a body piercing or
a tattoo with a non-sterile instrument,
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people with HIV, health care workers
who got injured by needle sticks, and
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children born to mothers with Hepatitis C.
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Hepatitis C can be serious, but
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now we have great treatments
that can cure the virus.
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So if you have any concerns whatsoever,
ask your doctor about getting tested so
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that you can learn your status and
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Hepatitis C FAQs for the public. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016. (Accessed on January 1, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm.)Hepatitis C: why people born from 1945-1965 should get tested. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016. (Accessed on November 30, 2017 at https://www.cdc.gov/knowmorehepatitis/media/pdfs/factsheet-boomers.pdf.) Patient education: hepatitis C (beyond the basics). Waltham, MA: UpToDate. (Accessed on November 30, 2017 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/hepatitis-c-beyond-the-basics.)