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Hepatitis C: A Threat from the Past

Millions of baby boomers may have a dangerous illness and not know it. The illness is hepatitis C. It affects more than 3 million people in the United States. As many as 2 million may not realize that they have the disease. That's because hepatitis C can linger for years without causing problems, often taking 20 or more years to significantly progress.

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Over time, HCV can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. 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.

Are you at risk?

Hepatitis C is spread by contact with the blood of someone who has HCV. These factors raise your risk for hepatitis C:

  • Injecting illegal drugs, even if it was only once or a long time ago

  • Receiving a clotting factor to treat a blood-clotting problem before 1987

  • Having an organ transplant or blood transfusion before July 1992

  • Being exposed to blood infected with HCV through a job in the health field

  • Having hemodialysis for a long time

  • Living with someone who has HCV and sharing razors, toothbrushes, or other personal items that may have blood on them

  • Having sex with someone who has HCV

Women with HCV may also pass the virus to their infant at birth. It’s possible to get hepatitis C by getting a tattoo or piercing with unsterilized tools, but the risk is uncertain. You can’t get hepatitis C through casual contact with someone who has HCV. You can't get HCV by hugging or kissing someone who is infected.

Get tested

If you think that you might be at risk, you should ask your doctor for a test just to be safe.

Your doctor may decide to do more than one test to make sure of the results and to see how much your liver has been affected.

A positive result

A doctor who finds that you have hepatitis C may refer you to a liver specialist for more testing. Although some people with hepatitis C develop liver cirrhosis and liver cancer, most never have significant liver problems.

According to the CDC, approximately 3.2 million people in the United States have chronic HCV infection. Infection is most prevalent among those born during 1945-1965, the majority of whom were likely infected during the 1970s and 1980s when rates were highest.

Because so many people have been infected for years without knowing it, the CDC expects the number of deaths caused by hepatitis C to double or even triple in the next 15 to 20 years.

Treatment options

Doctors usually treat hepatitis C with a combination of interferon and ribavirin. Because these drugs work best in the early stages of the disease, most people start to receive treatment soon after they are diagnosed.

Treatment typically lasts 24 to 48 weeks. These drugs can cause unpleasant side effects, such as flu-like symptoms, hair loss, low red blood cell count, and depression. Talk with your doctor about any side effects you have.