May is Hepatitis Awareness Month. Hepatitis is an inflammatory condition of the liver, and when your liver is inflamed, its ability to function can be compromised. Hepatitis is most commonly caused by a viral infection, although there are other causes as well. We’re concentrating on viral hepatitis in this blog.
There are five known types of viral hepatitis classified as hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. In the US, the most frequently diagnosed, affecting an estimated 4.4 million Americans, are hepatitis A, B and C.
Each of these conditions is caused by a different virus: the hepatitis A virus (HAV), hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hepatitis A. B and C have similar symptoms but are spread in different ways and can affect the liver differently.
The most common symptoms of hepatitis include: dark urine, yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes (jaundice), clay-colored stool, low-grade fever, loss of appetite, fatigue and aching joints. You may also feel sick to your stomach or have stomach pain. If you experience any or a combination of these symptoms, contact your doctor right away.
To diagnose hepatitis, your doctor will perform a physical exam and review of your symptoms. The doctor will use blood tests to check for the presence of the virus and may also use liver function tests to see how your liver is working, an abdominal ultrasound to look for liver damage or enlargement, or a liver biopsy to sample any abnormal areas of your liver and study them under a microscope.
Hepatitis A is usually a short-term illness that doesn’t lead to a chronic, or long-lasting, infection. The hepatitis A virus is found in the stool and blood of people who are infected. Hepatitis A, which is highly contagious, is commonly spread by eating contaminated food or drink. It can also be spread through close personal contact with someone who is infected, such as during oral-anal sex.
There is no cure for hepatitis A. Treatment typically consists of rest, adequate nutrition and fluids. In rare cases, people with hepatitis A require hospitalization. This type of hepatitis normally resolves within 2 months without having any long-term effects, and you will have lifelong immunity afterward.
Hepatitis B is spread through contact with body fluids such as blood, vaginal secretions and semen containing HBV. Your risk for getting hepatitis B increases if you inject drugs or if you have sex or share razors with someone who has it.
Some people with hepatitis B, particularly those who get infected as adults, are able to clear the virus from their bodies without treatment. For others, short-term hepatitis B progresses into a chronic, lifelong infection that over time can result in serious health problems such as liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer and even death.
When treatment for hepatitis B is needed, there are several medications currently available and others in development. However, people who start hepatitis B treatment may need to take medication indefinitely because these medications do not lead to a cure.
Hepatitis C is one of the most common causes of liver disease in the US and used to be the number one reason for liver transplants. The infection is chronic in 75 to 85 percent of people who have it, and 1 to 5 percent experience life-threatening complications, such as liver failure.
Hepatitis C is spread by coming into contact with the blood of a person who is infected with HCV. This can happen if you share drug injection equipment; have sex with someone who is infected; or share personal items such as razors, nail clippers or toothbrushes with an infected person. In addition, about 6 percent of infants born to infected mothers will get hepatitis C.
Treatment is recommended for all people including children three years of age and older and pregnant women with hepatitis C. Currently, treatment involves taking medication for a course of eight to 12 weeks. The cure rate with this therapy is more than 90 percent with few side effects.
To help prevent hepatitis, there are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there is no vaccine currently available for hepatitis C.