Living Well: What you need to know about hepatitis
The World Health Organization estimates that 325 million people are living with viral hepatitis B and C worldwide — and many of them don’t know it.
Hepatitis is a general term meaning ‘inflammation of the liver.’ The liver, which is in our upper right abdomen, filters blood coming from our digestive tract, said Julia von Allmen, Family Medicine physician assistant at Memorial Regional Health.
- Hepatitis A: Worldwide, hepatitis A usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person. In the United States, hepatitis A is most commonly spread from close personal contact with someone infected. Hepatitis A does not cause a chronic, lifelong infection and is rarely fatal, but it can cause serious symptoms. Vaccination is the best way to prevent hepatitis A. Good hand hygiene, improved sanitation and increased food safety can also prevent hepatitis A.
- Hepatitis B: Globally, the hepatitis B virus is most commonly spread from an infected mother to her baby at birth and among unvaccinated children. People can also become infected from contact with blood and other body fluids through injection drug use, unsterile medical equipment and sexual contact. Hepatitis B can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, chronic illness. If infected at birth or during early childhood, people are more likely to develop a chronic infection, which can lead to liver cirrhosis or even liver cancer. Getting the hepatitis B vaccine is the most effective way to prevent hepatitis B. WHO recommends that all infants receive the hepatitis B vaccine as soon as possible after birth, followed by two to three additional shots.
- Hepatitis C: The hepatitis C virus is spread through contact with blood from an infected person. Hepatitis C can also spread, although rarely, from an infected mother to her child at birth. Hepatitis C can cause both acute and chronic infections, but most people who get infected develop a chronic infection. A significant number of those who are chronically infected will develop liver cirrhosis or liver cancer. With new treatments, over 90 percent of people with hepatitis C can be cured within two to three months, reducing the risk of death from liver cancer and cirrhosis. The first step for people living with hepatitis C to benefit from treatments is to get tested and linked to care. There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C, but research in this area is ongoing.
- Hepatitis D: The hepatitis D virus is spread through contact with infected blood. Hepatitis D only occurs in people who are already infected with the hepatitis B virus. People who are not already infected with hepatitis B can prevent hepatitis D by getting vaccinated against hepatitis B.
- Hepatitis E: The hepatitis E virus is spread mainly through contaminated drinking water. However, pregnant women infected with hepatitis E are at considerable risk of mortality from this infection. Hepatitis E is rare in the United States, but is found worldwide. Improved water quality and sanitation can help prevent new cases of hepatitis E.
Viral hepatitis includes the group of infectious diseases known as hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. The World Health Organization reports that these five types are of greatest concern “because of the burden of illness and death they cause and the potential for outbreaks and epidemic spread.”
Each form of hepatitis causes acute or chronic liver disease, but B and C — which are both preventable — are the two most dangerous.
“In particular, types B and C lead to chronic disease in hundreds of millions of people and, together, are the most common cause of liver cirrhosis and cancer,” according to the WHO.
Viral hepatitis causes more than 1 million deaths each year — and the annual toll is on the rise, according to the World Hepatitis Alliance.
Causes and symptoms
Viruses are the most common causes of hepatitis. Alcohol and certain drugs, and even our own immune system (rarely) can also cause hepatitis, von Allmen said.
“Symptoms might include jaundice (yellow-appearing eyes and skin), abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, fatigue and/or joint pain,” she said.
Your symptoms, a check-up, blood tests and sometimes imaging are used to diagnose hepatitis, while family doctors and gastrointestinal doctors work together to treat hepatitis.
Vaccinations prevent hepatitis A and hepatitis B, while avoiding intravenous drug use is the best way to prevent hepatitis C. (See factbox for more details about each type of hepatitis.)
Von Allmen said hepatitis A typically passes on its own, and hepatitis C is treatable with oral medications. Sometimes hepatitis B passes on its own but if not, there are medications for chronic hepatitis B. For any type of hepatitis, if it’s causing liver failure, a liver transplant is sometimes a treatment option, she said.