Baby Boomers At Risk for Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by infection with the hepatitis C virus, which is spread via blood. Today most infections come from sharing needles or other devices for injecting drugs.  However, 3 out of 4 cases of hepatitis C infections occur in Baby Boomers, or people born between 1945 and 1965. During this time period, the U.S. blood supply was not widely screened for certain infections so many people unknowingly may have contracted the virus via a blood transfusion or organ transplant.

Hepatitis C can cause an acute infection, which usually resolves in about 6 months, or a chronic infection that can persist for many years. The majority of people infected with hepatitis C will go on to develop chronic hepatitis C. Chronic hepatitis C can go undetected without symptoms and many people have hepatitis C without knowing they are infected. However, the disease can damage the liver causing cirrhosis, liver cancer and even liver failure. It is a leading cause of liver transplantation in the United States.

Early detection can lead to treatments that can reduce risk for liver damage and cancer. Given that 1 out of 30 Baby Boomers has been infected with hepatitis C, it is advised they have a one-time screening blood test.

Most people have no symptoms when they are first infected with the hepatitis C virus. If you do develop symptoms, they may include:

  • Feeling very tired
  • Joint pain

  • Belly pain       

  • Itchy skin

  • Sore muscles

  • Dark urine

  • Yellow eyes and jaundice (usually a symptom noted later in the disease)

Many people find out by accident, either through a routine checkup or blood tested for a blood donation, that they have the virus. Risk factors for this silent but deadly virus include:

  • History of blood transfusions or other blood products, or oxygen transplant before widespread adoption of screening measures

  • Long-term dialysis treatment

  • Exposure to hepatitis C such as through a health care setting

  • Infection with HIV, the AIDS virus

  • Children born to mothers with hepatitis C

  • Tattooing or piercing with non-sterile instruments

  • Injection drug use

Although hepatitis C can be very serious, most people can manage the disease and lead active, full lives. If you are a Baby Boomer or have one of the above risk factors, you should contact your doctor about being tested for hepatitis C.

By Daniel Sutton, MD, ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca.