7 Answers About Hepatitis C

7 Answers About Hepatitis C

Learn how the hepatitis C virus is transmitted, who is at risk, how to get screened for hep C and more.

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).

For a small percentage of people who contract hepatitis C, the infection resolves within a few weeks or months. However, 75 to 85 percent of people who contract HCV will develop chronic hepatitis C, a long-term infection that can potentially cause serious health complications, including liver damage, cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.

How many people have hepatitis C?
According to data published by the World Health Organization, about 71 million people worldwide have hepatitis C. In the United States, there are over 3 million people living with chronic hepatitis C, with roughly 17,000 new cases every year.

How is hepatitis C transmitted?
HCV is most often transmitted via contact with the blood of an infected person. Some people contract HCV by sharing drug paraphernalia with a person who has HCV. Though it is rare, some become infected with HCV from sharing everyday objects like razors or toothbrushes that may have blood on them. Healthcare workers have contracted HCV when accidentally injured with a contaminated needle or other piece of sharp medical equipment. HCV can also be sexually transmitted. Infants born to infected mothers can also become infected.

However, the largest demographic of people with HCV were born between 1945 and 1965, and likely contracted the virus due to medical practices during that era.

Why is hepatitis C common among older adults?
Hepatitis C is most common among the Baby Boomer generation—those born in the United States between 1945 and 1965. People in this generation are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other age groups, and account for more than 75 percent of infected adults in the U.S. There have been several theories as to why so many Baby Boomers have hepatitis C. In recent years, researchers have proposed the idea that the spread of HCV among this generation was the result of medical practices during the era, a time when there were not universal precautions and procedures to prevent the spread of infections like HCV.

Regardless of the reason, anyone who is a part of this generation needs to be screened for hepatitis C, and there has been a major push in public health in recent years encouraging older adults to be tested for HCV.

Does hepatitis C have symptoms?
Not usually, which is why the disease can go unreported. People with hepatitis C often don’t look, act or feel sick in any way. Only about 20 to 30 percent of people with acute hepatitis C have symptoms. Those symptoms tend to be mild and resemble the flu—fatigue is the most commonly reported symptom. Other symptoms can include a mix of fever, nausea, upset stomach, muscle soreness, joint pain, dark urine and jaundice (a condition where the whites of the eyes and the skin take on a yellowish color). Symptoms typically appear between two weeks and six months after exposure.

Most people with chronic hepatitis C do not have any symptoms until they begin experiencing the first signs of liver damage.

What are the complications of hepatitis C?
Unfortunately, many people with untreated chronic hepatitis develop liver disease. Between 10 and 20 percent develop cirrhosis of the liver, where there liver becomes badly scarred over the course of many years and stops functioning properly. People with chronic hepatitis C are also at increased risk of liver cancer.

How do healthcare providers test for hepatitis C?
To be screened for hepatitis C, your healthcare provider will order a blood test. If positive, there will be another blood test to confirm that the infection is still active—this is because about a quarter of people with the virus clear it on their own, and don't need further treatment.

How is hepatitis C treated?
There are a number of treatments available for hepatitis C, and patients today have better treatment options than patients in previous years—including a medication that can cure the disease in 90 percent of cases. It is better to receive treatment for chronic hepatitis C as early as possible, and treatment cannot reverse liver damage that has already occurred.

The decision on how to treat hepatitis C will be made during a conversation between a patient and a healthcare provider. The decision on what type of treatment to use depends on a number of factors, including the overall health of a patient, the extent of the damage to a patient’s liver, what other medications a patient is taking, if the patient has received a liver transplant and if the patient has received a previous treatment for hepatitis C.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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