Hep C and the Undiagnosed

Hepatitis C (hep C) is a viral infection that can cause liver damage. Luckily, hep C is easy to treat. But about half of people with hep C do not know they have it. In the United States, this is about 1.8 million people. Without treatment, hep C can cause serious liver damage and cancer.1-3

Why can hep C be undiagnosed?

People may not realize they have hep C because symptoms can take a long time to show up. There are 2 phases of hep C: acute and chronic. Symptoms during the acute phase are rare and can go unnoticed. They include:1

  • Feeling tired
  • Muscle aches
  • Upset stomach
  • Fever

The acute phase happens 1 to 3 months after exposure and can last 2 weeks to 3 months. But many people do not have these symptoms and do not know they have hep C.1

Some people may only have acute hep C and clear the virus from their bodies. For others, it develops into chronic hep C.1

Chronic hep C can be unnoticeable for a long time until it begins to cause liver damage. The symptoms people notice are often actually the signs of liver disease. These include:1

  • Bleeding or bruising easily
  • Yellow skin or eyes
  • Feeling tired or not hungry
  • Dark urine
  • Swollen legs
  • Weight loss

How is hep C diagnosed?

Doctors use a blood test to check for hep C. But people may not know to test if they do not show symptoms. Even for people who do test, getting a diagnosis involves 2 tests. Some people do not return for the second test because of the time, cost, and effort involved.4

The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening all people ages 18 to 79 for hep C. This means testing people for hep C even if they do not show symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends hep C screening for people in many high-risk groups.3

Who might have undiagnosed hep C?

Diagnosed or undiagnosed hep C is more common in certain groups of people (populations). This is because something about the group can make people more likely to be exposed to hep C. For example, high-risk populations include:1

  • People born between 1945 and 1965. People this age are about 5 times more likely to have hep C.
  • People who have injected or inhaled illegal drugs.
  • Healthcare workers exposed to infected blood, such as through an accidental needle prick.
  • People with HIV.
  • People who are or have been in prison.
  • Anyone born to a mother with hep C.
  • People who have received a type of treatment called clotting factor concentrates before 1987 or hemodialysis treatments for a long time.
  • People with tattoos or piercings done in an unclean or unsterile location.
  • Anyone who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992.

Some people in these communities may also have barriers to accessing hep C testing. For example, some people do have access to healthcare. So it is possible there are even more undiagnosed people in these groups.3,4

If you are worried about your risk for hep C, ask your doctor about a screening test. You can also take precautions such as:1

  • Practicing safer sex
  • Checking for cleanliness when you get a tattoo or piercing
  • Not inhaling (snorting) or injecting (shooting) drugs
This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The HepatitisC.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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