If you're one of the 74 million baby boomers in the United States — people born between 1946 and 1964 — you probably think about a host of health issues. It's unlikely you think much if at all about hepatitis C — but you should.
If you’re one of the 74 million baby boomers in the United States — people born between 1946 and 1964 — you probably think about a host of health issues.
For a variety of reasons, baby boomers are more susceptible to contracting hepatitis C than the general population; in fact, they’re five times more likely to have it than other adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1 in 30 baby boomers is believed to be infected with hepatitis C, says Dr. Hardeep M. Singh, a gastroenterologist with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. Overall, an estimated 3.5 million people in the U.S. are infected with it, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. More than 75 percent of those who are infected are part of the baby boomer generation, according to the American Liver Foundation. Left untreated, hepatitis C can cause a variety of serious and potentially fatal health conditions, including liver cancer and cirrhosis.
The hepatitis C virus poses a stealthy threat in that it can lie dormant for decades without causing any symptoms. In fact, most people who are infected with hepatitis C don’t know it, according to the CDC. Because baby boomers are disproportionately at risk for being infected with hepatitis C, compared to people in other age groups, the CDC recommends that all men and women of that generation get tested for the virus. One test is sufficient; there’s no need to repeat it, unless you subsequently engage in behavior — like sharing needles during drug use — that puts you at high risk of infection, says Dr. K.V. Narayanan Menon, medical director of liver transplantation in the Department of Gastroenterology & Hepatology at the Cleveland Clinic. Screening involves a blood test, which is typically covered by health insurance. A regimen of oral medication typically clears the infection in three months. There’s no vaccine for hepatitis C.
“Baby boomers need to understand that they are at greater risk for carrying hepatitis C, a silent killer that may not show symptoms for decades,” says Dr. Douglas L. Nguyen, a gastroenterologist and hepatobiliary specialist at UCI Health in Orange, California. “Just because you feel fine doesn’t mean you haven’t been exposed. We now have an effective treatment to wipe it out. But you need to know you have it. That’s why all baby boomers should get screened.”
Researchers discovered hepatitis C in 1989. Before then, clinicians associated the virus with blood transfusions and referred to it as non-A and non-B hepatitis. Reliable blood tests for hepatitis C were developed in the early 1990s, Menon says.
One reason baby boomers are at higher risk of being infected with hepatitis C is that blood products weren’t screened for the virus until 1992, according to the American Liver Foundation. People who received a blood transfusion or other invasive medical procedures before the advent of the hepatitis C test could have been exposed. Those in post-baby boomer generations are believed to be at lower risk for contracting the virus because health care providers began improving the sterilization of needles in recent decades or using disposable needles, says Clarissa Bradstock, chief executive officer of Any Lab Test Now, an Atlanta-based company that provides direct access to testing for hepatitis C and an array of other conditions.
In recent decades, public awareness about the risks of using needles infected with hepatitis C or HIV has grown dramatically. “We know so much more now and have so many regulations in place to prevent people from contracting hepatitis C,” Bradstock says.
People can contract the hepatitis C virus from a single exposure, she notes, which could occur in a variety of ways:
— Using a needle that was infected with the virus. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, many people weren’t educated about the potential dangers of sharing needles, Bradstock says. Some people may have thought sharing needles with close friends to use illicit drugs was safe. “You might have used an infected needle in the gym to inject yourself with steroids,” she says.
— Getting a tattoo with an unsterilized needle. If you got a tattoo in a parlor that wasn’t licensed and used unsanitized needles, you could be at risk for contracting hepatitis C, Bradstock says. Tattoo parlors that are licensed by state regulators are typically regularly inspected to make sure they adhere to health and safety codes. An unlicensed tattoo parlor may not always use sterilized needles. Friends without training sometimes tattoo each other, which can also pose an infection risk if the needles used aren’t sterilized.
— Having your ears pierced. If you were an adolescent and got your ears pierced at, say, a mall decades ago, you may have been infected, Bradstock says. It was common for girls in the 1970s to get their ears pierced at a large shopping mall — a popular hangout for previous generations. The places that pierced ears may not have been well-regulated or always used sterilized needles.
— Unprotected sexual activity. It happens rarely, but the hepatitis C virus can be transmitted during unprotected sexual intercourse, Singh says. People who are HIV positive and who have unprotected sex with multiple partners are a higher risk for contracting the hepatitis C infection, he says.
— Sharing razors or toothbrushes. Small amounts of blood from shaving cuts can get caught on men and women’s shaving razors. Blood can also get onto toothbrushes, if the brusher has bleeding gums. It’s best to not share razors or toothbrushes, unless everyone involved knows they’re not infected with hepatitis C, says Dr. Anthony Michaels, a clinical associate professor of hepatology at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “You want to avoid any type of blood exposure, because that’s how hepatitis C is transmitted,” Michaels says.
Left untreated, hepatitis C can become chronic in adults who contract it, Singh says. Over time, it leads to cirrhosis of the liver in about 20 to 30 percent of patients. Once cirrhosis occurs, patients may develop symptoms including jaundice (in which a person’s skin appears yellow), weakness, muscle wasting, fluid retention, confusion and bleeding. Hepatitis C can also lead to liver cancer.
If you’re a baby boomer and don’t know or aren’t sure of your hepatitis C status, experts recommend these strategies:
1. Ask your health care provider if you’ve been tested for hepatitis C. Many people get a blood test during an annual physical, but most of those don’t include a hepatitis C screening, Menon says. If you’re not sure if you’ve been tested for the virus, ask your provider. If you haven’t been tested for the virus, your health care provider can arrange a screening.
4.Get tested at a retail lab or pharmacy clinic. You can go to many retail labs or some medical clinics located inside pharmacies or retail stores (like Target) for a hepatitis C test with or without a doctor’s order. For example, Any Lab Test Now has 170 retail locations nationwide and charges $49 for a hepatitis C test. You’ll typically get the test results in three to four business days. “There is no reason someone should not take this test,” Bradstock says. “It takes less than 15 minutes and will provide you with peace of mind if you think you may be at risk.”