Is it serious?
Hepatitis has been all over the media lately, particularly in television commercials advertising new medications to treat it. Also, there has been a push encouraging people to get screen for it. Why is it such a big deal? What can happen if you have it?
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver and can be the result of a number of things. The most common cause is a viral illness that affect your liver directly. There are at least five types of hepatitis and they include A, B, C, D, E-plus types X & G. The most common are A, B and C. Each one is slightly different from the other in regards to cause, symptoms or treatment.
Hepatitis A is caused by drinking water or eating food that has been contaminated with the stool of someone with the virus. This can mean eating fruits, vegetables or other foods contaminated during handling, eating raw shellfish harvested from water that is contaminated or swallowing contaminated ice. People who travel to countries where proper food handling is not common are often at risk of getting Hepatitis A. Children in child care and their teachers are also at increased risk of getting the virus. Other groups that are at increased risk for contracting the virus are those who live with or have unprotected sex with someone who is infected, men who have unprotected sex with other men and those who share needles while injecting drugs. Symptoms can include jaundice (yellow-coloring of your skin and white part of your eyes—sclera), dark-colored urine, pain in your abdomen, loss of appetite, nausea, fever, diarrhea and fatigue. Children often have few or no symptoms. You can spread the virus for two weeks before you start having symptoms, during the first week that you do have symptoms or if you don’t have symptoms at all. Symptoms usually last 1-2 months, but can last up to 6 months. Treatment involves focusing on relief of the symptoms because it is a virus. Antibiotics will not work because it is not bacteria. Your body will fight the infection on its own and get better. In some cases, if the symptoms became severe, you may need to be hospitalized. Older people and those with chronic liver disease are more likely to have complications and, potentially, die from Hepatitis A. The best prevention is having good hand hygiene, such as washing your hands after going to the bathroom, especially before you do any preparation of food. There is a vaccine available and is recommended for anyone traveling to areas where possible exposure to Hepatitis A might be a concern. It is also suggested that teachers at child care centers get it. The vaccine provides protection from the virus for about a year.
Hepatitis B is caused by coming in contact with blood or bodily fluid of an infected person. This is usually through having unprotected sex, sharing needles when injecting drugs, getting a tattoo or piercing with tools that weren’t sterilized or sharing personal items (razor or toothbrush) with an infected person. Pregnant mothers can pass it to a baby during delivery. You cannot get it from hugging, kissing, sneezing, coughing or sharing foods/drinks. There are two types: acute and chronic. Acute infections usually less than 6 months and often do not have any symptoms, but many people complain of having flu-like symptoms. Other possible symptoms include fatigue, mild fever, headache, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, tan-colored stools, dark urine and jaundice. Chronic infections last longer than 6 months and can infect you for the rest of your life. No symptoms are typically present. Acute infections will go away on their own and care involves treating any symptoms, resting, eating healthy, drinking plenty of water and avoiding alcohol/drugs while you are sick. Chronic infections will not go away and are managed by a healthy lifestyle with monitoring of liver function to be aware of any liver damage and preventing further deterioration. The best prevention is not engaging in risky behavior by wearing protection during sex, making sure that all equipment at a tattoo or piercing shop has been sterilized, etc. There is a vaccine available Hepatitis B and is given over a series of 3-4 shots. The vaccine provides immunization for about 5 years.
Hepatitis C is caused by coming in contact with blood or body fluids of an infected person. This typically occurs through sharing needles while injecting drugs, having unprotected sex (especially if you have an STD, HIV, multiple partners) or during childbirth (a mother can pass it to the infant). You cannot get it from casual contact (hugging, kissing, sharing food) with someone who is infected. Also, it is not passed by contaminated foods/drinks. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), if affects almost 4 million people in the United States and most don’t even know that they have it. The reason for this it causes very mild symptoms that most people wouldn’t pay attention to until it has progressed to advance stages. It is recommended that you have a blood test to be screened for Hepatitis C if you fall into any of the following groups: received blood from a donor who had the disease, have ever injected drugs, had a blood transfusion/organ transplant before July 1992, received a blood product to treat clotting problems before 1987, were born between 1945-1965, have been on long-term kidney dialysis, have HIV, were born to a mother with Hepatitis C or have symptoms of liver disease. If left untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis and put you at an increased risk for liver cancer. Symptoms include jaundice, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea and fatigue. Prevention is best achieved by not participating in activities that put you at risk. There is not a vaccine for Hepatitis C, but recently there has been an improvement in treatment options that when caught early enough have been proved to cure the disease within a 6-8 week time frame.
Hepatitis, no matter the type, needs to be taken seriously. Any of them can lead to serious complications if left untreated. However, you now have a baseline of information to help you be prepared. If you have any questions about hepatitis, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Center for Disease Control’s Hepatitis webpage at https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/index.htm