Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by certain diseases, toxins, medications, infections or excessive alcoholic use. The distinct viral infections of hepatitis are grouped as hepatitis A, B and C. Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that can range from a mild, short illness to a severe, long-lasting illness.
The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 71 million people globally have chronic hepatitis C virus; in the United States, roughly 3 million people present with the persistent viral infection. While there are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, hepatitis C does not yet have a preventative vaccine.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus and spreads through sharing syringes, needles and other equipment used to inject drugs. Transmission can also occur from transfusions of unscreened blood or blood products, or from transplants of unscreened organs. (Hepatitis C screening in U.S. blood supplies started in July 1992.) Less common risks for infection include sexual contact with an infected partner and being born to a mother with the virus. If you are HIV-positive, you are also at higher risk. In some cases, non-sterilized tattoo or piercing equipment can increase infection rate. Skin contact with the blood of an infected person, such as a bleeding injury or sharing a razor or toothbrush, is also a possible means of contracting the virus.
Acute hepatitis C is typically asymptomatic, but symptoms can include:
- Jaundice (yellowing of skin and whites of eyes)
- Joint pain
- Decreased appetite
Approximately 75 to 85 percent of people infected with hepatitis C will develop the chronic infection. In many cases, people with the long-term infection do not notice symptoms until the liver becomes significantly compromised. Chronic hepatitis C infection often leads to liver damage, liver failure or liver cancer. A number of hepatitis treatments are effective for both the acute and chronic infections.
Older adults are at higher risk for developing hepatitis C, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains why seniors should be tested for hepatitis C. Talk to your doctor and get a blood test screening for the viral infection if:
- You are a baby boomer born between 1945 and 1965.
- You have used or currently use injection drugs.
- You received a blood transfusion or donor organ before July 1992.
- You were treated for a blood-clotting disorder before 1987.
- You have liver disease or abnormal liver tests.
- You are a long-term hemodialysis patient.
- You are HIV-positive.
- You had sexual contact with a hepatitis-C-infected partner.
- You have been exposed to another’s blood through a needle stick or sharp-object injury.
Prevention and early treatment of hepatitis C can be life-saving. Right at Home can help hepatitis patients with medication monitoring and care recovery needs. The World Health Organization sponsors the annual World Hepatitis Day on July 28 to advance awareness and reduce infection rates of the often symptomless disease.
What concerns do you have about hepatitis C for you or your older loved ones?
An award-winning journalist who has documented stories in nearly 20 countries, Beth Lueders is an author, writer and speaker who frequently reports on diverse topics, including aging and health issues for both U.S. and international corporations.