The silent epidemic of viral hepatitis

November 1, 2016 Dian Chiang, MD

Approximately 3.5 to 5.3 million Americans are infected with viral hepatitis, but most people do not know they are part of a silent epidemic. This puts them at greater risk of developing severe complications of hepatitis and more likely to spread the virus to others.

That’s why the federal government has called on certain groups of Americans—with a special plea to baby boomers—to get tested for chronic forms of hepatitis and, if needed, undergo treatment.

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. When the liver is inflamed, it may not be able to perform its functions, which include helping with digestion, removing toxins in the blood and more.

Chronic inflammation can scar the liver, cause cirrhosis and liver failure, and increase the risk of liver cancer. Heavy alcohol use, fatty liver, toxins, some medications, autoimmune conditions and viruses can all cause hepatitis.

Viral hepatitis

In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.  There’s a vaccine for hepatitis A – and even if you don’t get it and become sick from the virus, your liver will recover after a few weeks to several months.

But hepatitis B and hepatitis C can become chronic diseases. There’s also a vaccine for hepatitis B, but not for hepatitis C.

How do hepatitis B and C virus spread?

Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are transmitted through body fluids. The most common routes of transmission include:

  • Sex with an infected person
  • Sharing equipment used to inject drugs
  • During birth, from an infected mother to her baby

In addition, many people got hepatitis C when receiving a blood transfusion before 1992, when widespread screening went into effect and virtually eliminated hepatitis C from the U.S. blood supply.

What are the symptoms of chronic hepatitis B and C?

Some people with chronic hepatitis may feel tired, or have a poor appetite, dark urine, and yellow skin and eyes. But the disease can be considered a silent killer because most people with chronic hepatitis have no symptoms and don’t know they are infected. This is especially dangerous because chronic hepatitis B and hepatitis C may lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Who should get tested?

Many groups of people should get tested for hepatitis B. You can see a full list here, but they include:

  • People born in Asia, Africa and other regions with moderate or high rates of hepatitis B
  • People who live with someone with hepatitis B
  • Pregnant women

Calling all baby boomers

Some, but not all, of the same groups of people should get tested for hepatitis C. But the federal government has made a special plea to baby boomers, Americans born between 1945 and 1965. That’s because 3 in 4 people with hepatitis C were born during this period.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while experts don’t entirely understand why baby boomers are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults, many boomers are believed to have been infected in the 1960s through the 1980s, when transmission was at its highest.

How is viral hepatitis diagnosed and treated?

Diagnosis of viral hepatitis starts with a blood test. If this test is positive, additional tests are needed for confirmation.

For hepatitis B, there are several new treatments that can delay or reverse the effects of liver disease.

For hepatitis C, there are new treatments can halt the disease’s progression and cure most people.

The CDC has an online tool to help people assess whether they should get tested for hepatitis B or C.

If you need to be tested, or have any questions or concerns about your status and testing, talk to your provider, or call 1-800-SWEDISH and we’ll help find the right doctor for you. You can also find a Swedish physician here.

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