If you were born between 1945 and 1965, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some advice for you: Get tested for hepatitis C.
“Why boomers?” Several reasons. First, according to the CDC, about 75 percent of Americans who have hepatitis C are baby boomers. In fact, this group is five times as likely as others to have the disease, which is caused by a virus that infects the liver and can lead to cirrhosis, with complications such as bleeding, jaundice, infections or liver cancer.
While it’s unclear why this particular demographic has such high rates of hepatitis C, it’s believed that most boomers became infected during the 1970s and 1980s, when rates were particularly high. Hepatitis C is spread through contact with blood from another person who is infected, and can live in the body for years without any noticeable symptoms, so someone who was infected during those years still might not realize it.
Some of the ways the disease was spread during those decades included sharing needles while taking drugs (even if only one time), having sex with someone who was infected, or receiving contaminated blood and blood products, which weren’t routinely screened until years later.
Getting tested is particularly important because the disease can cause damage even though an infected person might not have any symptoms. According to the CDC, liver disease, liver cancer and deaths from hepatitis C are on the rise. But often, it’s not until tests show some kind of damage to the liver that people find out that they have had the disease for decades. Hepatitis C is usually chronic (75 to 85 percent of the time), meaning the person has had it for six months or more.
Also at Risk
Baby boomers aren’t the only people at high risk for Hepatitis C, which affects roughly 3 to 4 million Americans. According to the American Liver Foundation, those at high risk also include anyone who:
• Got tattoos or body piercings in an unclean environment, using equipment that was not sterile.
• Shared needles to inject drugs or straws to inhale them.
• Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992.
• Received a blood product for clotting problems made before 1987.
• Needed to have blood filtered by a machine for long periods of time (hemodialysis) due to kidney failure.
• Was born to a mother with hepatitis C.
• Had unprotected sex with multiple partners.
• Had a sexually transmitted disease.
• Has tested positive for HIV.
• Came into contact with infected blood or needles, e.g., healthcare workers.
Though 70 to 80 percent of those with chronic hepatitis C will not show symptoms, some people will notice signs of infection within several months of exposure. These can include flulike symptoms, such as fatigue, sore muscles, joint pain, fever, stomach pain, nausea or poor appetite. You may also have itchy skin, dark urine or notice a yellowing of the skin and eyes, called jaundice.
Treatment for hepatitis C infection is complicated, expensive and doesn’t result in a cure for every patient.
Newer drugs may cause fewer side effects, and adherence to dosing instructions is important for a chance of curing the infection. If you have hepatitis C, be sure to consult your physician about your treatment options.