If You’re a Baby Boomer, Get Tested for Hepatitis C

You may not feel sick, but your liver is at risk

vial of blood marked Hepatitis C

If you’re a baby boomer, you may be one of an estimated 2.7 million people in the U.S. living with chronic hepatitis C – an infection of the liver caused by a virus. Worse yet, you may not know you have it. However, even if you are particularly at risk, there is good news. Doctors can now see the extent of liver damage the virus causes, which also makes it easier to treat.

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However, here’s the bottom line: If you’re a part of the Baby Boom Generation, you should be tested, says gastroenterologist and hepatologist Talal Adhami, MD.

Facts and figures

Hepatitis C is most often spread through contact with the blood of an infected person, but it can also be spread through sexual contact.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 2.7 million people in the United States are living with the virus, whether they know it or not. About two-thirds of those people are baby boomers.

The virus itself is not lethal, but its effects can be serious.

Why baby boomers are more at risk 

Here are some of the reasons this population is more at risk:

  • Blood transfusions and risky behaviors. “Blood transfusions were not screened before July 1992,” says Dr. Adhami. “There was also a sexual revolution in the 1960s, which not only encouraged risky sexual behaviors, but also drug experimentation.” People who have had unprotected sex and those who have taken drugs, particularly who have injected or snorted, are also at an increased risk for hepatitis C, he says.
  • Use of blood products. Dr. Adhami believes that all baby boomers should be tested, but there are some risk factors that make testing even more imperative. “Anyone in this age group who has received blood products is at risk,” says Dr. Adhami. “Chronic dialysis and HIV patients also need to be tested.”

You may not feel sick, but liver damage is common 

Some people can have hepatitis C for years without feeling sick, or they may just have minor symptoms. But if hepatitis C is left untreated, it can cause the liver to swell and become inflamed.

“Hepatitis C is the No. 1 reason for liver transplant,” Dr. Adhami says. “The virus can remain inside your body for 20 or 30 years, even if you don’t have symptoms.

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“Although the virus itself is not lethal, your body’s reaction to it can have a cumulative effect on your liver over time,” he says. “Scar tissue will build up, causing your liver to become very stiff, which can result in cirrhosis or liver cancer.” 

Screening begins with a blood test 

Doctors diagnose hepatitis C using a simple blood test. Primary care physicians are actively screening Baby Boomers for hepatitis C right now, so contact your PCP for testing, says Dr. Adhami.

If you have the virus, the next step is to find out the extent of the damage it has caused. “How much scar tissue you have determines how sick you will be,” says Dr. Adhami.

The FDA recently approved a new test, a Fibroscan™, to determine how much scarring is on the liver.

“The Fibroscan is an ultrasound-based scanner,” Dr. Adhami says. “It can detect how stiff the liver is, which corresponds to how much scar tissue is in there. It’s painless and very efficient. It also doesn’t have any of the risks that are associated with liver biopsy.”

Historically, testing for scar tissue has been done with a liver biopsy, but risks associated with that procedure include:

  • Bleeding
  • Pain
  • Punctured organs

Advances in treating hepatitis C 

Hepatitis C treatment has come a long way over the last few years, according to Dr. Adhami.

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“We used to treat hepatitis C with interferon, which had a lot of side effects,” he says. “Last year, some new oral medications were approved that have a 98 percent success rate of getting rid of the virus for life. These medications are not only effective, but also very well tolerated.”

He said some patients have complained of headaches or achiness; others have experienced no side effects at all.

“Most have excellent tolerance and are able to finish their entire eight- to 24-week treatment regimen. That was a huge problem with the interferon,” he says.

Insurance coverage may depend on disease severity

Although the new treatments are effective, they don’t come without a cost.

“Insurance companies are paying for certain regimens based on how advanced the liver disease is,” Dr. Adhami says. “In some cases, treatment for those in the early stages may be delayed for a year or so until more cost-effective options become available.”

FibroScan™ is a registered trademark of ECHOSENS.

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