Many people with Hepatitis C may not experience symptoms for years—or even decades. But that doesn’t mean the disease isn’t dangerous.
Hepatitis C is a potentially chronic illness that damages the liver and possibly other organs. We asked Carolyn Schmitt, MS, PA-C, a physician assistant at the University of Minnesota Health Hepatology (Liver) Clinic, located in our Clinics and Surgery Center, to tell us more about Hepatitis C and screenings for the disease.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by a virus that is most commonly transmitted through contact with infected blood. The virus can also be spread through sexual contact, though the risk of transmission is low. If left untreated, Hepatitis C can lead to severe liver complications, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Other possible complications include lymphoma and kidney issues. The Hepatitis C virus can cause both acute and chronic infection; often acute cases develop into a chronic, lifelong illness.
“Patients often don’t have any common symptoms. By the time the symptoms begin to appear, it’s often too late to prevent many of the more severe problems associated with Hepatitis C,” Schmitt said.
While Hepatitis C can cause severe—and sometimes life-threatening—complications, the good news is that it’s curable. A Hepatitis C screening is simple and consists of a blood test that can be performed by a regular primary care physician. If that test comes back positive, patients should undergo a second test to confirm the findings from their first screenings. If a patient has two positive tests, then it’s time to seek out a specialist at a liver clinic, so that they can partner with a patient to reduce and prevent any related health complications.
Yes, that’s right: All Baby Boomers should be tested. This includes all those born between 1945 and 1965 who have not already been tested for Hepatitis C.
“The medical community didn’t identify and understand Hepatitis C until 1993. For that reason, many people may have been accidentally exposed because the proper precautions weren’t in place,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt and her colleagues recommend that people who are members of an “at-risk” population receive Hepatitis C screenings. At-risk populations include those who have used or currently use illicit intravenous drugs, HIV-infected individuals and those who received blood transfusions or donated organs before 1993. People who have received a tattoo from a less reputable source and people who worked or were incarcerated in a prison may also want to consider screening. Other groups include immigrants from developing nations and people whose mother was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, as there’s a small chance the disease can be passed from mother to child.
If you were screened once and didn’t test positive for Hepatitis C, you likely don’t need to get screened again—unless you continue to engage in risky behavior. The risk of contracting Hepatitis C is always possible for intravenous drug users.