The World Hepatitis Alliance reports more than 300 million people are unknowingly living with viral hepatitis, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.
Hepatitis is a viral disease that leads to inflammation of the liver. In some cases, the condition can progress to fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis, or liver cancer.
“Most patients who have hepatitis don’t actually know,” said Dr. Alex Myint, clinical assistant professor of medicine in the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition. “This is particularly true of hepatitis C, where over half of patients don’t know they have the infection.”
Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are the most common forms of the disease in the U.S. If you fall into one or more of the following categories, you could be at increased risk for having hepatitis and should consider getting tested:
- You were born between 1945 and 1965. Baby boomers are five times as likely to have hepatitis C as other adults, so people born between these years are encouraged to receive a one-time hepatitis C screening.
- You had an organ transplant or blood transfusion before 1992.
- You have been diagnosed with diabetes, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), HIV/AIDS, chronic liver disease, or a clotting factor disorder.
- You have a tattoo.
- You have ever injected or snorted illegal drugs, even if it was only once many years ago.
The primary reason hepatitis often goes undiagnosed is because many people who are infected have no symptoms.
“A small percentage of people will become symptomatic, but those symptoms occur even a few weeks after they’ve been infected,” said Dr. Myint.
Fortunately, most forms of hepatitis are treatable and easily diagnosed using blood tests and other non-invasive procedures, such as scans. In some cases, you may also need a liver biopsy to see if there is damage.
Once diagnosed, there are a variety of treatment options available to patients.
“There are some new medications that have come out in the last few years that have really changed the game in terms of treatment,” said Dr. Myint. “These medicines are pill-based, they’re well tolerated, and they’re very effective in curing hepatitis C.”
At UPMC Mckeesport, patients diagnosed with hepatitis are evaluated to determine what kind of infection they have and the extent of damage to their liver. They are then put on a regime of 8-12 weeks of medication, followed by routine blood tests to make sure the treatment is progressing. If patients no longer have the hepatitis virus in their blood three months after treatment, they are considered cured of the disease.
For those who believe they may be at risk for hepatitis, Dr. Myint recommends speaking with a physician or health care provider so they can receive appropriate testing.
“This will allow for timely treatment, or in the case of acute infection, allow them to counsel and protect those who are in contact with them,” said Dr. Myint.
Unsure if you are at risk for having hepatitis? Take this 5 minute hepatitis risk assessment offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find out.