What Is Hepatitis C? What a Doctor Wants You to Know

Here’s what doctors currently know about this liver-damaging virus.

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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.

Learn more about testing for hepatitis C and lifestyle tips for managing hepatitis C.