What You Need to Know About Hepatitis
Millions of people across the United States are infected with Hepatitis A, B, and C, viral diseases that affect liver function and can cause chronic health conditions and permanent damage. Here’s what you should know.
What Is Hepatitis?
The liver is the largest organ in the human body. Its main job is to filter blood from the digestive tract, though it performs many other vital functions including detoxifying chemicals, metabolizing drugs, creating hormones, fighting infection, and storing energy. “If the health of the liver is jeopardized, then toxins and medications accumulate, causing problems throughout the body,” explains Dr. Nathan Hartgrove, an internal medicine physician with Parkridge Medical Group – East Ridge.
Hepatitis, which means “inflammation of the liver,” is usually caused by a viral infection, though it can also be linked to alcohol consumption, drug use, allergic reactions, obesity, or an autoimmune disorder. Some forms of hepatitis can be mild and may resolve over time without treatment, while others, when left untreated, can lead to long-term liver damage such as cirrhosis (permanent scarring that can cause liver failure) or liver cancer.
Distinguishing Between Types
Individuals infected with viral hepatitis don’t always display symptoms, but the ones that are commonly associated with the viruses include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine and pale bowel movements
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Low-grade fever
- Fatigue or dizziness
- Difficulty thinking or understanding
The most common types of hepatitis are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C. Both Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can cause chronic disease without displaying symptoms, which means many people may be unaware they are infected.
These three types of hepatitis are all caused by viruses, but each has an alternative method of contraction and affects the liver differently:
A highly contagious form of hepatitis, “Hepatitis A is spread by consuming food and water that has been contaminated by stool from an infected person,” explains Dr. Erik Ewing, a family medicine physician at CHI Memorial Primary Care Associates – Harrison. People most at risk for becoming infected are international travelers, childcare workers, drug users, those who are HIV positive, and men who have sex with other men.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highly recommends a vaccination to guard against Hepatitis A for children and people with increased risk, though the vaccine is recommended for everyone as a preventative measure. Most cases of Hepatitis A don’t display symptoms until you’ve had the virus for a few weeks, but receiving the vaccine within two weeks of exposure can protect you from infection.
Once you’ve had Hepatitis A, you can’t contract the infection again, and unlike Hepatitis B and C, it will not become chronic. Cases should clear up on their own, and permanent damage is unlikely.
“Proper hand washing and good hygiene are the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus, as there is not treatment for Hepatitis A,” says
“Hepatitis B is spread through contact with contaminated blood, body fluids, and potentially from mother to child during pregnancy or delivery,” explains Dr. Ewing.
Hepatitis B can range from a mild illness that lasts just a few weeks to a chronic disease. Acute Hepatitis B infection occurs in the first six months after being exposed to the virus. In some cases, the infection clears without treatment, resulting in immunity from future infection. In more severe cases, acute Hepatitis B can lead to chronic infection, which can result in serious health problems like permanent liver damage, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
Development of chronic Hepatitis B is closely correlated with age at the time of acute Hepatitis B contraction: 90% of infants infected at birth, 30% of children ages 1 to 5, and less than 5% of infected people over the age of 5 will develop a chronic case. Anti-viral drugs are available to treat people with chronic Hepatitis B, but they do not eliminate the virus entirely. Instead, they can prevent more serious liver problems.
About 30% to 50% of people ages 5 and older experience symptoms of Hepatitis B, most commonly beginning three months after exposure. Even if the flu-like symptoms aren’t present, an infected person can still carry and spread the disease. Fortunately, there is a vaccination to prevent Hepatitis B.
Because it’s so easily passed from a mother, who may not be aware she has it, to her child during birth, the CDC recommends all pregnant women get tested during their first trimester.
Hepatitis C, which has no preventative vaccine, is spread by sharing needles with an infected person or through sex with an infected person.
About 3.9 million Americans have Hepatitis C, but because it often doesn’t display symptoms, most people don’t know they’re infected for years. Dr. Hartgrove explains, “Many people mistakenly think that they do not need to be checked for hepatitis simply because they don’t feel any symptoms.” However, because this disease is largely asymptomatic and doesn’t resolve itself, Hepatitis C infection becomes chronic in 75% to 85% of infected people, with 70% of those infected developing a liver disease. Hepatitis C is the most common cause of liver transplants.
It’s recommended that you get tested for Hepatitis C if you’ve knowingly come into contact with an infected person, had a blood transfusion or an organ transplant before 1992, have been on long-term kidney dialysis, have HIV, or have ever injected drugs. Baby boomers, those that were born between 1945 and 1965, have the highest risk for Hepatitis C: 3 in 4 adults with Hepatitis C are baby boomers.
“Fortunately,” says Dr. Hartgrove, “treatment for Hepatitis C has improved immensely in recent years. In the acute phase of the infection, antiviral medications and supportive treatment are given. The truly exciting aspect of treatment is with chronic Hepatitis C; treatment regimens are now available that are simpler and shorter in duration. And around 90% of people who complete treatment are cured of the virus.”
Living with Hepatitis B & C
If you are diagnosed with chronic Hepatitis B or C, there are measures you can take to keep yourself healthy and protect others.
Always wash your hands and cover open sores. Do not share personal items that could potentially have blood on them, like toothbrushes, razors, and nail clippers. Follow your treatment plan strictly, and never lapse on regular doctor’s appointments; consistent monitoring can keep you updated and informed on the progress of your treatment. Alcohol should be highly restricted or eliminated altogether, and acetaminophen (found in Tylenol and other pain relievers) should never be taken with alcohol. Last, but certainly not least, always practice safe sex and inform new partners of your infection.
While hepatitis can be serious and scary, most cases are treatable. Modern medicine has made treatment for hepatitis – even Hepatitis C, the most common and deadliest form in the U.S. – much more effective.
Hepatitis D & E
Other viral types are Hepatitis D and Hepatitis E. These types of hepatitis are rare in the U.S., but both can be serious.
Hepatitis D is spread through intravenous drug use, blood exposure, and sexual contact, but it can only infect people who already have Hepatitis B. Hepatitis D is an incomplete virus that cannot survive on its own.
Hepatitis E is most common in under-developed countries, and is transmitted through contaminated food and water.
Like many serious health conditions, early diagnosis is the key for effective management. It’s important to talk with your doctor about getting tested if you fall into any of the risk categories or have knowingly come into contact with any of the viruses.