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September 2013

Hepatitis C: A Serious Risk for Baby Boomers

Hepatitis C has a knack for making headlines. Celebrities such as Steven Tyler, Pamela Anderson, and Natalie Cole have publically shared that they have the virus. Its latest reason for renown: Health experts are now recommending that all baby boomers be screened for the disease.

Photo of an older man looking at a laptop computer

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a virus that attacks the liver. A vital organ, the liver flushes harmful substances out of the body, aids with digestion, and helps protect against infection. Left untreated, hepatitis C can seriously damage the liver. It can cause liver disease and possibly even liver cancer. People with a severe case of hepatitis C may eventually need a liver transplant.

Hepatitis C is usually transmitted through contact with infected blood. People who use or have used injection drugs are at risk for it. So, too, are those who had a blood transfusion or an organ transplant before 1992. That's when testing the blood supply for hepatitis C began.

Other possible ways to contract the virus include receiving a tattoo with an improperly sterilized needle or having unprotected sex with an infected individual. You can also be exposed to hepatitis C if you share nail clippers, razors, or toothbrushes with a person who has the disease.

Who should be screened?

Health experts have recommended screening for people at risk for hepatitis C for years. Based on the latest science, though, the CDC and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now advise one-time screening for all adults born between 1945 and 1965.

Why the change? More than 75 percent of those already diagnosed with hepatitis C in the U.S. were born during those years. In fact, a recent CDC study found baby boomers are five times more likely to have hepatitis C. And many of them don't know it.

Hepatitis C may not cause any initial symptoms. Signs of the infection may not appear for 20 or 30 years, when it finally begins to attack the liver. Symptoms can include fatigue, muscle pain, fever, diarrhea, and an upset stomach. People with liver damage may also bruise easily, have yellowed eyes or skin, and take a long time to stop bleeding.

A simple blood test can determine if you have hepatitis C. A positive result requires another blood sample to confirm the virus. Unfortunately, a recent government report found that many people who initially test positive for hepatitis C may forgo follow-up blood work. These people may not be receiving life-saving treatment.

If you are a baby boomer, talk with your doctor about being screened for hepatitis C. Along with your age, other risk factors-such as a personal history of blood transfusions-may make testing a wise choice for you. An early diagnosis can help stop liver damage. Treatment typically includes a combination of medicines taken over six months to a year.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.


Concerned you or a loved one may be at risk for hepatitis C? Watch this video for more details about the disease.


Online Resources

American Academy of Family Physicians - Hepatitis C

CDC - Hepatitis C

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases - What I Need to Know About Hepatitis C