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DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I’m a 62-year-old man with no health problems. At my last checkup, my doctor recommended that I be tested for hepatitis C, even though I don’t have any symptoms. Is this really necessary?
ANSWER: It is important for people in your age group to be tested for hepatitis C. Studies have shown that Americans born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely than other individuals to be infected with the virus. Most people who have hepatitis C do not show symptoms, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone who falls in the high-risk age range get tested.
Hepatitis C is caused by a virus that attacks the liver. Its effects can be serious and long-lasting. If left untreated, hepatitis C can cause liver damage, scarring of the liver tissues — a condition known as cirrhosis — and, eventually, even death. Hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver cancer and the No. 1 reason for liver transplants.
In about 60 to 80 percent of adults who become infected with hepatitis C, the virus lingers in the body. But, in most cases, it’s impossible to tell it is there without testing. As people with hepatitis C age, the virus slowly damages the liver over time. Many people with hepatitis C don’t know they have the infection until liver problems show up. That’s often decades after the initial infection. It’s estimated that if everyone in the recommended age group is tested for hepatitis C, it could prevent more than 120,000 deaths from liver disease.
The hepatitis C virus is spread from contact with contaminated blood. The reason for the higher hepatitis C infection rate in baby boomers is not entirely clear. It may be linked to the fact that, before 1992, blood screening tests for hepatitis were not as reliable as they are now. So, it was possible to get the virus through a blood transfusion or an organ transplant without knowing it.
Some people may have become infected with hepatitis C by sharing contaminated needles when injecting drugs. This can happen even if a person comes in contact with an infected needle only once. In many people, it is not possible to know how they became infected. No matter what the source of a hepatitis C infection, it is critical that it be detected.
Blood tests are available that can identify the hepatitis C virus. When the virus is found, it may be necessary to take a small sample of liver tissue — a procedure called a liver biopsy — or have other tests done to determine the severity of liver damage. Results of these tests can help guide treatment decisions.
Hepatitis C infection is treated with antiviral medications that can clear the virus from the body. Usually, a combination of these medications is taken over several weeks to several months. Twelve weeks after the treatment is completed, another blood test is done to check for hepatitis C. If the virus is still present, a second round of treatment may be recommended. In the vast majority of cases, no further treatment is necessary beyond that.
I strongly encourage you to be tested for hepatitis C. For everyone born between 1945 and 1965, as well as anyone else who may be at high risk for other reasons, being tested for this virus is a crucial step in ensuring long-term health. — Dr. Stacey Rizza, Infectious Diseases, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota
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