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Hepatitis Awareness: It Starts with Screening

Today's Medicine

I tend to catch many of my patients off-guard when I ask to test them for hepatitis C.

Many ask if it’s actually necessary – they say they have never done anything to be exposed and they don’t look or feel sick. My answer is always a resounding yes!

We can’t cure a disease we don’t know about, and we can’t eradicate a disease we aren’t testing for. A simple blood test can change not only your health, but the health of the country.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver, what we call “hepatitis.” It is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person.

Most people with the disease don’t remember getting it because it frequently causes no symptoms in the early stage. Only 20 percent of people ever report symptoms of acute hepatitis C infection, and those symptoms are typically vague and non-specific.

For example, acute hepatitis C infection causes:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Joint pains
  • Jaundice

Although it is possible for the body to stop the infection on its own, this doesn’t happen often. Nearly 85 percent of people who contract hepatitis C will go on to have a chronic liver infection. And although asymptomatic, this chronic infection can progress to cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer – all serious and life-threatening conditions. In fact, hepatitis C is the leading cause of cirrhosis, liver cancer and the need for liver transplant in the U.S.

How do you get hepatitis C?

Because hepatitis C is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person, common risk factors for getting the virus include:

  • Sharing needles, syringes, and equipment used for injecting drugs
  • Having ever injected drugs, even if years ago or just once
  • Healthcare workers who suffer needlesticks
  • Children born to mothers with Hepatitis C
  • Receiving blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992
  • Persons infected with HIV

Other less common methods of contracting hepatitis C include having sexual intercourse with multiple partners, prior history of sexually transmitted infections, or receiving tattoos or piercings with non-sterile equipment.

Hepatitis C is not spread by breastfeeding, saliva, sneezing, sharing food or by mosquitoes.

Who needs to be tested for hepatitis C?

The CDC recently expanded its recommendations for who to test for hepatitis C, and that now includes everyone born between 1945 and 1965.

If you belong to that group or any of the following groups, talk to your doctor today about being tested:

  • You have ever — even if just once — injected drugs into the veins
  • Received blood transfusions or an organ transplant before 1992
  • On hemodialysis for kidney failure
  • Have high liver function tests
  • Persons infected with HIV
  • Healthcare workers after a needlestick or other exposure to blood
  • Children born to mothers with hepatitis C

I don’t have any risk factors. Why does my doctor still want to test me?

An estimated 3.5 million people in the U.S. have hepatitis C, and up to 85 percent of these people may not even know they have it! Despite not knowing about or having symptoms of hepatitis C, those with infection can still spread it to others.

"It is of utmost importance that we identify all hepatitis C infections so we can treat, cure, and maybe one day eradicate the infection."

Dr. Shana Peper
Methodist Physicians Clinic internal medicine provider

Baby boomers, those born between 1945 and 1965, account for 75 percent of all hepatitis C infections in the U.S. and are five times more likely to be infected than any other age group. They are also more likely to develop complications from their hepatitis C, and that’s where we are seeing an increase in deaths related to liver failure and cancer.

Many medical procedures during this time were done before we knew how hepatitis C was spread or practiced the strict infection control measures we do now. You could have unknowingly been exposed to hepatitis C — it’s not uncommon for people to have hepatitis C and have no idea how they got it!

If I have hepatitis C, what can be done?

The good news is that the past few years have been an exciting time to care for and treat hepatitis C. There are several new drugs available that can treat and potentially cure the virus.

These medications have the potential to prevent cirrhosis, liver failure and death. They are highly successful, very well-tolerated and only taken for a few months.

Your doctor can review in detail the options available for you or refer you to a liver specialist to get you the care you need.

Want to learn more? Check out the CDC’s website for its Know More Hepatitis campaign.  

Shana Peper

About the Author:

A child of a military family, internal medicine physician Dr. Shana Peper was raised to be selfless and do whatever she could to help others.

She treats a wide range of patients at Methodist Physicians Clinic Indian Hills.

See More Articles by Shana Peper