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Hepatitis C is on the Rise

Published in Women's Services, Infectious Diseases, Men's Health, For the Health of It Author: Seth Nelson, MD, and Abdikafar M. Yusuf, MD, CentraCare – Family Health Clinic

Hepatitis C is increasing dramatically in the United States, particularly among younger adults. There are more than 58 million people in the world living with the hepatitis C virus; an estimated 33,000 of those people live in Minnesota. In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. There are vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and B, but not for hepatitis C.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes liver inflammation, sometimes leading to serious liver damage and scarring called cirrhosis. The hepatitis C virus spreads through contaminated blood. It can start as a short-term illness (acute) but can often lead to a long-term (chronic) infection. More than half of people who become infected with hepatitis C virus will develop a chronic infection. Today, chronic hepatitis C is often curable with oral medications taken every day for two to six months.

How is hepatis C spread?

Hepatis C virus is usually spread when someone comes into contact with blood from an infected person. This can happen through:

  • Sharing drug-injection equipment
  • Birth
  • Health care exposures
  • Sex with an infected person
  • Unregulated tattoos or body piercings
  • Blood transfusions and organ transplants (although the risk of transmission to recipients of blood or blood products is extremely low today because of widespread screening)

What are the symptoms of acute and chronic hepatitis?

People with acute or chronic hepatitis often do not have symptoms and therefore do not know that they are carrying the virus. If they do experience symptoms, they happen between two to 12 weeks after being exposed. Common symptoms can include:

  • Yellow skin or eyes
  • Upset stomach
  • Throwing up
  • Fever
  • Dark urine
  • Light-colored stool
  • Joint pain
  • Feeling tired

Chronic liver disease in people with hepatitis C usually happens slowly. Many people eventually develop chronic liver disease, which can range from mild to severe and include cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer.

Who should get tested for hepatitis C?

About half of people with hepatitis C don’t know they’re infected, mainly because they have no symptoms. Hepatitis is often not recognized until people are screened for blood donation or from an abnormal blood test found during a routine doctor visit. For that reason, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends:

  • That all adults ages 18 to 79 years be screened for hepatitis C, even those without symptoms or known liver disease.
  • The largest group at risk includes everyone born between 1945 and 1965 — a population five times more likely to be infected than those born in other years.

You should also get tested if you:

  • Are pregnant
  • Are currently injecting drugs
  • Have HIV
  • Have abnormal liver tests or liver disease
  • Have been exposed to blood from a person who has hepatitis C.

If you are exposed to hepatitis C, treatment is available for both acute and chronic cases. Treatment includes eight to 12 weeks of oral therapy and cures over 90% of patients with a few side effects. The FDA has a list of current approved treatments for hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C Facts

  • The World Health Organization estimates that 3.2 million people live with chronic hepatitis C infection.
  • In 2019, approximately 290,000 people died from hepatitis C, mostly from cirrhosis and liver cancer.
  • Approximately four in 10 people with hepatitis C in the United States do not know they have it, which means they aren’t seeking lifesaving treatment.

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