8 Myths About Hepatitis C

Tim Gower | May 17, 2017 May 24, 2017

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Who is at risk?

Baby boomers, take note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you should be screened for hepatitis C—the deadliest infectious disease in the United States, which kills nearly 20,000 Americans a year. The CDC estimates that up to 3.9 million people in the United States have the chronic form of the disease, and 80 percent of them were born between 1945 and 1965. That’s why it recommends a one-time screening for this age group. Yet only about 14 percent of boomers have heeded that advice, according to a March study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Left untreated, it can cause serious liver damage. Following are eight myths about the disease.

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Myth 1: Most people know they have it

About half of people who have chronic hepatitis C don’t know it because it can take 20 to 30 years before symptoms of liver damage emerge. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, jaundice (a yellow tint to the skin and eyes), dark urine, and gray-colored stools.

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Myth 2: It's a junkie's disease

Sharing tainted needles to inject drugs is the most common way people become infected with hepatitis C. But if you had a blood transfusion or an organ transplant before 1992 (when screening of donor blood began) or received clotting factors (used to treat hemophilia) before 1987, you’re also at risk. Being on chronic dialysis for kidney disease, working with blood or needles, or having a tattoo or body piercing with poorly sterilized tools can also expose you to hepatitis C.

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Myth 3: You can catch it from a kiss

A small survey in the Journal of Emergency Medicine in June 2016 found that 42 percent of baby boomers surveyed believed hepatitis C could be passed on with a kiss. About 1 in 10 thought the virus could be transmitted with a handshake. Neither is true: Hepatitis C is acquired through exposure to infected blood, so it can’t be spread through casual contact, coughing, or sneezing or by sharing food, eating utensils, or drinking glasses. Less commonly, hepatitis C can be transmitted through unprotected sexual contact and the sharing of toothbrushes or razors.

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Myth 4: It's detected with one blood test

Hepatitis C is not detected with one blood test alone; in fact, two blood tests are needed. The first looks for antibodies the body produces to fight off the virus. A negative result means you’re probably in the clear. A positive result means you were exposed to the virus at some point but doesn’t determine whether you’re still infected. Your blood will be tested for the virus’ genetic material, using the hepatitis C RNA test. If you’re currently infected, you’ll need additional testing to determine the virus’s strain (known as a genotype) to select the right treatment.

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Myth 5: There's no cure anyway

Older treatment regimens could often eradicate hepatitis C, though it was a challenge since the drug therapy was hard to tolerate. A new class of more tolerable drugs called direct-acting antivirals has revolutionized treatment since 2012. Those drugs cure more than 90 percent of patients with certain genotypes—but patients must take the medications exactly as directed and not skip doses. What’s more, the cost of antivirals can run nearly $100,000 for a 12-week course, or more than $1,000 a pill. Many insurers will cover the costs only for patients with advanced disease.

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Myth 6: Treatment is long and miserable

The standard therapy at one time included the drug interferon, which had to be injected for up to a year or longer and caused severe side effects, such as fever, headaches, and joint and muscle pain as well as irritability, anxiety, and low blood cell levels. Many patients weren’t able to adhere to their drug regimen as a result. The newer direct-acting antivirual drugs sometimes cause side effects, but they are milder, such as headache and fatigue. Treatment typically takes 12 weeks, although it can take as few as eight weeks or as long as six months.

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Myth 7: Supplements can help cure it

There’s no evidence or good reason why any dietary supplement can cure hepatitis C or relieve its symptoms. That includes milk thistle extract, which is marketed as a remedy for liver disease.

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Myth 8: Once cured, you're immune

Today’s powerful new direct-acting antiviral treatments can cure hepatitis C, but they don’t confer immunity to the disease. If you’re exposed to the virus again, you can become reinfected.