There is a lot of confusion about hepatitis, so let’s look briefly at what it is and what it isn’t.
Quite simply, hepatitis means an inflammation of the liver. This can be caused by alcohol, chemicals or an illness. The hepatitis that is of major concern to our seniors is viral hepatitis where a virus causes the liver to become inflamed and infected.
There are many forms of viral hepatitis that most of us are familiar with. Hepatitis A is usually a food borne illness caused by ingesting waste products of an infected organism. It can be spread by unsanitary conditions or food service workers not following safe hygiene procedures. Once infected with Hepatitis A, you cannot be infected again and the disease is usually mild and does not result in any long-term issues for most people.
Hepatitis B is sexually transmitted for the most part and does have serious side effects. There exists no cure for Hepatitis B and long term chronic infection with this virus can cause serious issues including liver cancer.
The good news is that there is a vaccine for both A and B.
Now let’s talk about Hepatitis C and the concerns for seniors.
Many have heard the term "baby boomers" which refers to those born between 1945 and 1965. Studies have shown that this group is 5 times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults. Infection with this virus can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer. The problem here is that most people with hepatitis C do not know they are infected. Because many people can live with hepatitis C for decades without symptoms or feeling sick, testing is critical so those who are infected can get treated and cured.
Once infected, some people are able to clear, or get rid of, the virus. Most people, however, develop a chronic, or long-term, infection. Over time, chronic hepatitis C can cause serious health problems. In fact, hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver cancer and the leading cause of liver transplants.
So why are baby boomers afflicted more than others with Hepatitis C?
The reason appears to be linked with the drug use of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when transmission of this virus was at its highest. Since Hep C is spread through blood and blood products, boomers could have become infected from medical and dental procedures in which unsanitary equipment was used. Others could have become infected from receiving contaminated blood products before wide spread screening eliminated this risk by 1992. Of course, those who used dirty needles to take illicit drugs are at the highest risk of having this infection.
Another way this virus could have been spread was the plethora of nail salons that popped up from the 1970s through today. Of particular concern are nail files, nail brushes, finger bowls, foot basins, buffers, razors, clippers and scissors. Hepatitis B and C are hearty viruses and can survive outside the body for a considerable period of time. The CDC reports that Hep B can survive at least seven days on environmental surfaces while Hep C has the ability to cause infection up to three weeks outside the human body. Nail salon tools not cleaned and disinfected properly have the potential to transmit both Hep B and C. Today, most states have enacted strict sanitary laws for nail and hair salons.
The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is to get tested. A blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test, can tell if a person has ever been infected with the hepatitis C virus. This test looks for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. Antibodies are chemicals released into the bloodstream when someone gets infected. When getting tested for hepatitis C, ask when and how test results will be shared.
There are two possible antibody test results:
Non-reactive, or a negative, means that a person does not have hepatitis C. However, if a person has been recently exposed to the hepatitis C virus, he or she will need to be tested again.
Reactive, or a positive, means that hepatitis C antibodies were found in the blood and a person has been infected with the hepatitis C virus at some point in time. A reactive antibody test does not necessarily mean a person has hepatitis C.
Once someone has been infected, they will always have antibodies in their blood. This is true if even if they have cleared the hepatitis C virus. A reactive antibody test requires an additional, follow-up test to determine if a person is currently infected with hepatitis C.
The good news is that many types of the Hepatitis C virus responds well to the new treatments available today. Just a few short years ago, using the word cure when speaking about Hepatitis C was a fantasy yet today, a cure is possible.
So, if you are a boomer, ask your doctor if a test for the Hep C virus makes sense for you.