Seniors and Hep C: Find Out What You Need to Know

by Nancy

Hepatitis C is a viral liver infection, caused by the HCV virus. Hepatitis C is not something you develop as a result of getting sick, it is spread when you receive blood contact with an individual already carrying the virus. There are several circumstances where this happens, with the most common being shared needles. Because of this, it is especially common in drug users, but these are not the only individuals at risk.

There are varying levels of symptoms associated with Hepatitis C. In some cases, it is a short-term illness, fading after several weeks. For many, it is a serious, long-term infection, often leading to additional medical issues. In the most severe cases, you may develop liver cancer or cirrhosis. Typically, symptoms do not appear in the early stages, but once you start showing symptoms, there is only a small window to act. As of writing, there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C, but there are select treatment plans available.

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Hepatitis C and Seniors

A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found seniors born between 1945 and 1965 are fives times more likely to have Hepatitis C than any other age group. A large part of this relates to minimal testing during Hepatitis C outbreaks in the 70s and 80s. During this period, there were significantly less regulations and testing for blood transfusions and organ donation.

In addition, many adults do not show any symptoms, but as they get older, their body has a harder time fighting off disease and infections, which can cause the HCV virus to flare up and start causing problems. Once Hepatitis C gets to your liver, treatment becomes much more difficult, and without preemptive testing, there is often no way to know you have the virus until an infection starts.

Acute vs. Chronic Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is divided into two categories. The first is acute, which occurs within the first six months of being exposed to the HCV virus. During this period, you may experience some flu-like symptoms. This includes an increased temperature, nausea, fatigue and joint paint. In more severe cases, you may also experience abdominal pain and jaundice. Additionally, your urine may develop a darker color.

If the infection has not been treated during this period, it has a chance to develop into chronic Hepatitis C. During this period, the virus is slowly causing damage to your liver. The virus may lay dormant in your body for years before you experience chronic symptoms. Chronic symptoms are much more severe, including bleeding and bruising easier, difficulty eating and drinking and muscle aches. It can also cause confusion, intense periods of drowsiness and slurred speech. Without treatment, chronic Hepatitis C has a high chance of turning into a serious problem, causing permanent damage and scarring to your liver, which can prove fatal.

Because many cases of Hepatitis C go undiagnosed, it is hard to track how common it is in the United States. While only close to 4,000 cases of acute Hepatitis C were reported in 2018, the CDC believes the actual number is closer to 50,000. Based on a 2016 report, there were nearly 2.5 million individuals in the United States living with chronic Hepatitis C.

Testing for Hepatitis C

The CDC recommends testing for Hepatitis C at least once for all adults. There is also a recommendation to get tested each time you are pregnant, as it is possible to pass the HCV virus to your child. If you received either an organ transfer or blood transfusion before 1992, it is also advised to get tested. There are several blood tests doctors can use to check for the HCV virus. This not only checks for Hepatitis C, but also A and B variants.

If the blood test is positive, the next step is to undergo a genotyping test. This identifies which strain of the virus you have, and generate useful information to plan a treatment. If you have chronic Hepatitis C, your doctor may recommend additional testing. This includes a liver function test, which determines if there is any damage to your liver. In severe cases a liver biopsy may be recommended as well.

Treatments for Hepatitis C

If you have acute Hepatitis C there are several antiviral medications available to treat the virus. As of writing, the most common treatment for acute cases is interferon (IFN), a type of autoimmune medication. There are several medications available for chronic treatment as well. Riboviria is sometimes used for both acute and chronic, while Zepatier, Harvoni and Mavyret are used for chronic cases. Epclusa and Vosevi may also be used for chronic treatment.

If you experience serious liver damage from your infection, your doctor may recommend a liver transplant. A liver transplant will not get rid of the HCV virus in your body, but it gives your new, healthier liver a better chance of fighting off the infection.