Can You Have Hepatitis C and Not Know It?

man and woman posing outside near a river
Baby Boomers represent 50-75% of those infected, so a one-time hepatitis C screening is recommended.

Millions of people may have hepatitis C. How do you know if you’re one of them? Terry Knick, RN, MPH, and a hepatitis C coordinator at UVA Health helped to clarify some of the facts.

It is estimated that 2.4 million Americans have the hepatitis C virus. But since the majority of people with the virus have no symptoms in early stages, more than half of people who have chronic hepatitis C don’t even know they have it. Learn more about the symptoms and who should get a hepatitis C screening test.

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

“Symptoms do not usually appear until 20 – 30 years after infection, when the liver damage is advanced”, says Knick. These symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fluid retention
  • Confusion
  • 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 get a hepatitis C screening?

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 doctors suggest a screening in this age group even if you have no known risk factors.

If you had a blood transfusion prior to 1992 (when blood started to be tested for hepatitis C), are HIV positive, have been on hemodialysis, share needles for drug use, or have spent more than 90 days in jail then talk with your providers. Health care and emergency medical workers who have ever been pricked with a needle should also be screened.

Hepatitis C Treatment at UVA

We offer treatment through the Infectious Diseases clinic. Telemedicine options are also available for patients that do not live close to Charlottesville.

Treatment Options

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are treatments for the infection. “There are several medication combinations that consist of one or more pills that are taken once a day for 8 – 12 weeks. The current treatments have few side effects and have a 95% cure rate if taken regularly”, adds Knick. 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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