Question: I recently heard the CDC now recommends baby boomers be tested for hepatitis C. Is that true? If so, why is testing necessary? Wouldn't I have symptoms if I had the disease?
Answer: It is true the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends anyone born between 1945 and 1965 get tested for hepatitis C infection. Americans born during that time are five times more likely than other people to be infected. Most people with hepatitis C don't have symptoms, so testing for this serious infection is very important.
Hepatitis C is an infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver. In about 60 percent to 80 percent of adults infected by hepatitis C, the virus lingers in the body. But in most cases, it's impossible to know it's there without testing for it. Eventually, as people age, the hepatitis C virus can cause damage to the liver. Many of those with hepatitis C don't know they have the infection until liver damage shows up, often decades after the initial infection.
The hepatitis C virus is spread from contact with contaminated blood. The reason for the higher hepatitis C infection rate in baby boomers is not entirely clear. It may be linked to the fact that before 1992, blood-screening tests for hepatitis were not as reliable as they are now. So it was possible to get the virus through a blood transfusion or organ transplant without knowing it.
Some people may have become infected with hepatitis C by sharing contaminated needles when injecting drugs. This can happen even if a person comes in contact with an infected needle only once. In many people, it's impossible to know how they became infected. No matter what the source of a hepatitis C infection, it is critical it be detected.
In some mild cases of hepatitis C, treatment may not be necessary because the risk of future liver damage is very low. If so, follow-up blood tests and monitoring for liver problems may be all that's needed.
In many cases, though, hepatitis C infection is treated with antiviral medications that can clear the virus from the body. Usually, a combination of antiviral medicine is taken over several weeks to several months. Once the treatment is completed, blood tests are done to check for hepatitis C. If the virus is still present, a second round of treatment may be recommended. Frequently, no further treatment is necessary beyond that.
If hepatitis C goes undetected and the infection is not treated over many years, it can cause serious liver problems. After several decades, hepatitis C infection can lead to scarring of the liver tissues, a condition known as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis makes it hard for the liver to work properly. In time, that can lead to liver failure and possibly the need for a liver transplant. In addition, some people with hepatitis C develop liver cancer.
Blood tests that can detect the hepatitis C virus are available. If the virus is found, it may be necessary to take a small sample of liver tissue - a procedure called a liver biopsy. A biopsy can help doctors determine the severity of liver damage and guide treatment decisions.
If you were born between 1945 and 1965, talk to your health care provider about being tested for hepatitis C.
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