Millions of people may have hepatitis C. How do you know if you’re one of them?
It is estimated that 3 ½ to 5 million people have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus. But since the majority of people who are infected with the hepatitis C virus have no symptoms in early stages, more than half of people who have chronic hepatitis C don’t even know they have it. Could you be one of them?
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a liver infection that is spread through infected blood. Although it can be a short-term illness (acute), approximately 75-85% of people who are infected with the hepatitis C virus develop a chronic infection. Left untreated, this can result in liver damage, liver cancer, cirrhosis and even liver failure.
Symptoms typically don’t show up until advanced liver disease is present. Symptoms may include:
- Fluid retention
- Yellow discoloration of eyes
- Bleeding problems
- Unexplained weight loss
- Abdominal pain
Even when people exhibit symptoms of hepatitis C, the symptoms can often be attributed to a number of other health conditions. For example, fatigue is a common symptom. But being tired can be related to other medical conditions or even not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.
Should you be screened for hepatitis C?
The best way to know whether or not you have hepatitis C is to have a simple blood test. There is a high incidence of hepatitis C in people born between 1945 and 1965 so screening is recommended in this age group even if you have no known risk factors. Since hepatitis C is spread by infected blood, screening is also recommended if you had a blood transfusion prior to 1990 (when blood started to be tested for hepatitis C), have been on hemodialysis, share needles for drug use or were incarcerated. Health care and emergency medical workers who have ever been pricked with a needle should also be screened.
How can you protect yourself against hepatitis C?
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are treatments for the infection. Your doctor may recommend medication to treat chronic hepatitis C and can talk to you about what you can do to protect your liver from further damage. The first step in treating hepatitis C is to know you have it. That’s why screening is so important.
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Date Last Reviewed: May 16, 2019
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD