Learn About the 3 Types of Hepatitis
Hepatitis of any form is an infection of the liver, but the nature, severity and outlook of the disease can vary considerably according to the type of hepatitis that is contracted and at what stage it is diagnosed. While it is important to remember that a hepatitis diagnosis is not a death sentence, all forms of the disease have the potential for serious implications.
By Jessica Capets Chevalier
The liver cleans the blood and removes harmful toxins and chemicals from the body. Therefore, damage to the liver – as affected by hepatitis A, B or C – can cause these processes to weaken or fail; additionally, cirrhosis and cancer of the liver can occur.
As with any illness, awareness of prevention, symptoms and treatment of all types of Hepatitis is key to maintaining good health and well-being.
The hepatitis A virus is transmitted via infected fecal matter. The largest outbreak of hepatitis A in the United States occurred in 2003, when 660 people in Pennsylvania were sickened – four fatally – at a Chi Chi’s restaurant. As symptoms of hepatitis A do not manifest for two to seven weeks, it is often difficult to determine the root cause of the disease. However, in the case of Chi Chi’s restaurant, tainted green onions were to blame.
Food and drink can transmit the hepatitis A virus through two means. First, if an infected preparer does not wash his hands after using the bathroom the virus can be transmitted to the food being prepared. Secondly, foods that come in contact with infected stool while being grown in the field may transmit the virus if not properly cleaned. This contact can happen accidentally or purposefully, as human waste is commonly used as a fertilizer in many developing countries. Produce fertilized in this way may be shipped to the United States and enter our food stream.
There is also a risk that the hepatitis A virus may be spread at hospitals or day care centers if proper cleaning procedures are disregarded. Additionally, homosexuals and those who travel to countries with a high incidence of hepatitis A are at a greater risk of contracting the virus.
Hepatitis A symptoms generally last about two months and include exhaustion, upset stomach, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, sore muscles, jaundice, itching, depression and pain at the right side of the belly at the location of the liver. As these symptoms are similar to those of the flu, a true diagnosis must be determined through a blood test.
Generally, hepatitis A does not lead to prolonged illness or liver damage, and the best course of treatment is rest, a healthy diet and consumption of large quantities of water. Hepatitis A can be prevented through vaccination, which generally ensures 100 percent effectiveness. Pre-infection, an immune globulin injection – which may be administered to those already exposed to the disease – is 85 percent effective in combating infection. Fortunately, individuals can only be infected with hepatitis A once, as the body builds immunity to the virus thereafter.
Like most cases of hepatitis A, the majority of hepatitis B infections have a strong prognosis for recovery – approximately 95 percent of cases result in recovery without treatment.
The hepatitis B virus manifests in two forms: acute and chronic. According to Dr. Mark Anderson, a specialist at Infectious Disease Physicians in Chattanooga, only 1 percent to 2 percent of individuals infected with hepatitis B have a chronic infection and are at risk of spreading it to others.
Carried within the blood and bodily fluids, hepatitis B is the only form of hepatitis frequently transmitted through sexual contact. Hepatitis B can also be transmitted from mother to baby during childbirth or through shared needles. It should be noted that those at risk of transmission through needles are not only IV drug users. Health care professionals can be infected by accidental needle sticks. The hepatitis B virus can also be transmitted if instruments in tattoo shops are not properly sterilized. Additionally, individuals who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992 should be tested, as should those who have received long-term dialysis treatment.
Like hepatitis A, hepatitis B manifests flu-like symptoms including loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, abdominal pain around the liver, joint pain, dark-colored urine, jaundice of the skin, and icterus, a yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
Those infected with hepatitis B are generally ill for two to three months. If the virus lasts longer than six months, a doctor should be contacted regarding treatment, which typically consists of antiviral medications or – in extreme cases – a liver transplant.
Though the virus is generally treatable, it must be noted that hepatitis B harbors a dark side: carriers of the virus have a 100 times greater likelihood of developing liver cancer. What’s more, some carriers may be asymptomatic, meaning that they do not manifest symptoms, yet have the ability to transmit the disease. In any case, immunization is crucial to avoiding the disease altogether. Most children in the United States are given a hepatitis B immunization within in the first year, and immunization is recommended for those with high risk factors.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 3.2 million Americans carry hepatitis C. However, since many individuals do not realize they are infected, the number could vary substantially.
Hepatitis C can manifest both in acute and chronic infections; about 80 percent of those who contract hepatitis C develop the chronic version.
Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C is found in blood and bodily fluids. Most commonly, the hepatitis C virus is transmitted by needles. Occasionally, individuals contract hepatitis C through birth or sexually. However, Anderson notes that hepatitis C is so rarely transmitted sexually that the CDC does not stipulate condom use for monogamous partners if one carries the disease and the other does not.
The hepatitis B and C viruses share an additional means of transmission that is both surprising and benign: the sharing of body care equipment, such as toothbrushes, razors or fingernail clippers – items likely to contain trace amounts of blood that can serve as a means for transmission. Adults should make certain their hair stylists and manicurists follow appropriate sanitization procedures, and instruct children against sharing these items with friends.
Like hepatitis A and B, symptoms of hepatitis C are somewhat vague: exhaustion, joint pain, belly pain, itchiness, sore muscles, dark urine and jaundice. In fact, many individuals remain unaware of their infection status until they are “accidentally” diagnosed through routine blood work or when making a blood donation. Once diagnosis is made, a biopsy may be administered to determine the level of damage to the liver.
According to Anderson, the majority of hepatitis C carriers live healthy lives without complications. However, 10 percent to 30 percent of carriers develop liver cancer; those who drink alcohol or have HIV are at highest risk.
Treatment of Hepatitis C with antiviral medications is both expensive and painful. Advanced cases may be treated with a liver transplant; however, the virus may attack the new liver, as well.
For those diagnosed with any form of hepatitis, a regiment of rest, a healthy diet, consumption of large amounts of water, and avoidance of alcohol and drugs yields a healthier outcome. Most importantly, individuals – young and old – should recognize and be aware of risk factors and take the proper precautions to prevent hepatitis A, B or C.
Jessica Capets Chevalier is a Chattanooga resident. She was raised in Western Pennsylvania and earned a BA in English at Geneva College and her MFA in Writing at Penn State University.