What baby boomers should know about hepatitis C

Are you a member of the baby boomer generation, born between 1945 and 1965? Did you know there’s a condition that you’re five times more likely to develop than other adults?

It’s true. Adults born in those years are much more likely to develop hepatitis C than other adults. But why is that?

Let’s take a look at some common questions people have about hepatitis C. Jay Sizemore, MD, Infectious Disease Specialist, offers some answers about this increasingly common condition.

What exactly is hepatitis C?

Well, let’s first define hepatitis in general. Hepatitis is a group of viral infections that cause inflammation of the liver.

There are three types of hepatitis — hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C — which are each caused by a different and distinct virus. People who develop hepatitis A often recover without treatment, while hepatitis B can remain in the body long-term, causing chronic liver issues. There are vaccines available to prevent both hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Hepatitis C, on the other hand, has no vaccine. The condition occurs after a person is infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is typically passed through the blood of an infected person.

There are two types of infection associated with hepatitis C — acute HCV infection, which occurs within the first six months after exposure to the virus, and chronic HCV infection, which is a long-term illness that can lead to serious liver issues, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.

How does the condition spread?

As we mentioned above, hepatitis C is primarily spread through contact with an infected person’s blood. This may occur in several ways, including:

  • Sharing needles or syringes to inject drugs
  • Suffering a needle-stick injury in the healthcare environment
  • Being born to a mother with the condition

In addition, in rarer cases, HCV can be spread by sharing personal care items that came into contact with blood or having sexual contact with an infected person.

How common is the condition?

Each year, more than 30,000 cases of acute HCV infection occur in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the majority of cases, those acute infections turn into chronic hepatitis C. The CDC estimates that as many as 3.9 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C.

The condition isn’t just a United States problem, either — worldwide, as many as 71 million people have the chronic disease.

Why are baby boomers at an increased risk?

Researchers aren’t entirely sure. But because the condition can live dormant in the body for many years, it’s believed that many people in this generation acquired the condition during the 1960s through 1980s.

That time period predates universal infection control procedures in health care, meaning people could have been infected through contaminated medical equipment.

In addition, widespread screening of donated blood didn’t begin until 1992, greatly increasing the risk of exposure to the virus through blood transfusion.

So, what should I do?

Talk with your doctor about testing for hepatitis C. He or she may recommend testing if you:

  • Were born between 1945 and 1965
  • Are a current or former user of injected drugs
  • Were treated for a blood clotting condition before 1987
  • Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992

If you are diagnosed with the condition, treatment is available. The standard of care is evolving, and it is possible to cure the disease.

Your doctor can test you for hepatitis C as part of your annual checkup. Haven’t had yours yet this year? Find a doctor here.