Why Older Adults are at Risk for Hepatitis C

Learn why people who were born between the years 1945 and 1965 are at risk for hepatitis C.

Medically reviewed in January 2020

Hepatitis C is a disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), a virus transmitted through contact with the blood of someone who is infected. Chronic, long-term infection can result in liver damage, cirrhosis, and/or cancer of the liver.

Chronic hep C infections are often asymptomatic. Without noticeable symptoms, many people who have hep C do not realize they have it unless they are screened for infection. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends hep C screening for everyone between the ages of 18 and 79 years.

Baby Boomers and hep C
The CDC reports that 75 percent of people in the U.S. who are living with hepatitis C were born between the years 1945 and 1965—a group often referred to as the Baby Boomer generation.

Why is hepatitis C so prevalent among this age group? While the reasons are not fully understood, research supports the idea that HCV spread as a result of medical equipment and practices used in earlier decades—a time before there were universal procedures and precautions for preventing the spread of infection. For example, syringes in that era were made of metal and glass, and would be washed, disinfected, and reused. The single-use syringes that are used today didn’t become the standard until the 1950s. And effective screenings for HCV in blood donations was not available until 1992.

Healthcare experts strongly recommend hepatitis C screening for anyone born between the years 1945 and 1965. In the majority of cases, hepatitis C infections are asymptomatic, meaning the infection does not present any symptoms. People can have hepatitis C for years without knowing it. Despite this lack of symptoms, the infection is active, causing inflammation and damage to the liver. About 75 to 85 percent of people who become infected with HCV will develop a chronic hepatitis C infection.

Who else should be screened for hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is transmitted through contact with blood that is infected with HCV, and the virus can spread via drug paraphernalia and medical equipment. In rare cases, it can spread via common objects like razors or toothbrushes that may have blood on them. HCV can also spread through sexual contact. People considered at higher-risk for hepatitis C include:

  • People who have used drugs intravenously at any time in their life.
  • Healthcare workers exposed to blood or bodily fluids from a patient with HCV, or who have been exposed to blood from being stuck with a contaminated needle or other sharp medical instrument.
  • Children born to mothers who are infected with HCV.
  • People who have undergone hemodialysis for kidney disease.
  • People who have a tattoo or body piercing that was done with a non-sterile instrument.
  • People who have had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992.
  • Anyone who has had unprotected sex with a person who has HCV and/or those who have had multiple sex partners.
  • People who are HIV positive.

Getting screened for hepatitis C
The only way to conclusively diagnose hepatitis C is through blood tests. The best way to be screened for hepatitis C is through your healthcare provider, who will take a blood sample for testing.

Diagnosing hepatitis C is a multi-step process. The initial blood work will screen for HCV antibodies. If this test comes back positive, it means you have been exposed to HCV at some point in your life, and you will have another test to confirm whether you are currently infected with HCV.

A diagnosis of having HCV will be followed by a test that measures viral load, or how much HCV is present in the blood, and a genotype test that will help determine what antiviral treatment to use to treat the infection.

Treatment for hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is curable in most cases, and is treated with anti-viral medications that are taken over a period of several months. While these medicines are very effective at treating the disease, they cannot undo liver damage that has already occurred, which is why it is important to be diagnosed as early as possible.

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