A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Baby boomers: Ask about a hepatitis C test

Word map - HepC and liver cancer

Many baby boomers may not know they’ve been infected with hepatitis C and are at risk for liver cancer.

If you were born between 1945 and 1965, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you get a hepatitis C test.

Baby boomers are more likely than people in other age groups to have the virus because of exposure to contaminated blood products and medical instruments.

“Most people don’t know they’ve been infected unless they’re tested,” said Jennifer Clements, a Marshfield Clinic gastroenterology nurse practitioner. “Often people have hepatitis C for 20 or 30 years before they have symptoms.”

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a virus that can live in the body forever. It’s transmitted through blood contact with an infected person. Blood transfusions and organ transplants were more frequently linked to hepatitis C before 1987, when stricter guidelines for testing blood products were introduced. The virus also can be spread through injection drug use, getting tattoos or piercings in an unlicensed or non-sterile setting and high-risk sexual behavior.

People infected with the virus often develop chronic hepatitis C, which slowly damages the liver. Most people don’t show signs of liver damage until the problem is severe. Abdominal pain, itching and jaundice are some of the first symptoms of liver problems.

“Chronic hepatitis C can cause serious health problems over time and is one of the top reasons people need liver transplants,” Clements said.

Hepatitis C can cause scarring of the liver, which is called cirrhosis. Alcohol use increases the risk of developing cirrhosis. Liver cancer, internal bleeding, infections and liver failure are serious complications of cirrhosis.

Get tested and get treated

A blood test will show if you have ever been infected with the virus because the antibodies stay in your blood for your whole life. You’ll need a second test to check for active hepatitis C. Some people can clear the active virus from their bodies on their own. Only people with the active virus need treatment.

“Oral antiviral treatments for the different strains of hepatitis C are available to achieve a cure,” Clements said. “Costs are really dependent on insurance, and most present-day insurance companies are covering treatment, so the cost to the patient is oftentimes minimal or zero.”

Antiviral treatment can prevent further inflammation in someone who has hepatitis C to decrease their chances of getting liver cirrhosis and cancer.

“For someone who already has cirrhosis, the goal is to treat hepatitis C and decrease the amount of other complications,” Clements said. “Cirrhosis never goes away, but reducing inflammation reduces someone’s chance of getting liver cancer.”

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