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Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that can lead to permanent liver damage.
One of the best ways to prevent hepatitis A and B is to follow the recommended immunization schedule and give newborn babies a vaccination against the viruses.
If you have been exposed to hepatitis B, call your provider right away so you can get tested and start on a treatment plan.
While COVID-19 and other diseases (and their vaccinations) have taken center stage in recent years, one health crisis has become more and more prominent across the globe — viral hepatitis. According to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 354 million people worldwide live with hepatitis B or C and cannot obtain treatment.
July 28 is World Hepatitis Day, and this year’s theme is “We’re Not Waiting.” The World Hepatitis Alliance urges people not to wait to get tested or to give newborn babies their recommended schedule of immunizations against hepatitis A and B. It also reminds decision makers that they can’t wait and must act now to help eliminate hepatitis by investing in research.
Here, we give you the basics on the different types of hepatitis, how preventable they are and what you can do to keep yourself healthy.
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is inflammation in your liver, your body’s largest internal organ. Your liver is responsible for processing nutrients, managing sugars and fats, and eliminating toxins. Over time, liver infection, inflammation, and damage can lead to scarring (fibrosis) or hardening (cirrhosis) that can cause cancer or death.
Most hepatitis infections are caused by a virus. It spreads in a variety of ways, including through contaminated food and water, close physical contact, sex, or contact with infected blood. There are five types of viral hepatitis that cause liver disease. All types are treatable, but not all are curable.
In many cases, people don’t even know they’ve been infected with the virus so they can unknowingly pass it along. In fact, up to 90% of people are unaware they’ve contracted viral hepatitis. If symptoms do appear, they typically show up between two weeks to six months after infection. These signs include:
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Joint pain
- Light-color stool
- Loss of appetite
What are the types of viral hepatitis?
It’s possible to be infected with one of five strains — A, B, C, D and E. They each impact the body in different ways.
The differences between the strains are:
- Hepatitis A: Infections occur most often in low- and middle-income countries with poor sanitary conditions, but U.S. outbreaks are also common among people experiencing homelessness. Cases are caused by contaminated food and water or certain types of sexual activity. It doesn’t cause chronic liver disease, and most people make a full recovery within several months. However, some cases can be severe and life-threatening.
- Hepatitis B: This viral strain spreads through blood and semen. Most cases occur from sexual contact or sharing contaminated needles, including tattooing, piercing, or injectable drug use. It’s possible, though, for mothers to pass the virus to their babies during childbirth. It can cause a chronic liver infection that puts people at a higher risk of death from cirrhosis or liver cancer. Chronic infection is more common in children infected at birth or under age 5.
- Hepatitis C: This strain is a bloodborne infection caused by exposure to contaminated needles (either medically or through injectable drug use), mother-to-child transmission in childbirth, transfusion of blood carrying the virus, and sexual contact. It isn’t spread through hugging, kissing, or sharing food. Most cases are symptomless, but approximately 70% of people exposed will develop chronic infection, increasing their risk of cirrhosis.
- Hepatitis D: Infection with this type, called “delta hepatitis,” causes liver inflammation and is only possible in people who already have hepatitis B. It’s spread through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids or blood. It only occurs in 5% of people infected with hepatitis but carrying both viruses is particularly dangerous because it speeds up any development of liver cancer or liver-related death.
- Hepatitis E: Like hepatitis A, this viral strain also causes liver inflammation and spreads through contaminated food and water. Most people fully recover within two to six weeks. In rare circumstances, some patients can develop acute liver failure (fulminant hepatitis) that requires hospitalization.
How can we prevent and treat hepatitis?
The most common types of hepatitis in the United States are hepatitis A, B and C.
The best way to prevent hepatitis A and B is to get vaccinated through a vaccine series that typically takes place during childhood. There is no vaccination for hepatitis C — the best way to prevent it is to avoid behaviors that put you at increased risk for the disease, such as injecting drugs. Doctors recommend that all adults get tested for hepatitis C at least once in their life.
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A, as the body clears the virus on its own. To control symptoms, you will just need to rest, eat and drink well, and avoid alcoholic drinks.
If you have been exposed to hepatitis B, call your health care provider immediately. They will want to know how and when you were exposed, and whether you have gotten the hepatitis B vaccine. If the infection is mild, you may not need any treatment. However, if the infection is causing inflammation or scarring of the liver, you will require antiviral treatment for the rest of your life. Some people with hepatitis B eventually need a liver transplant.
Hepatitis C is also treated with antiviral medications. Your doctor will also want to monitor how much liver damage you have experienced. If you develop serious complications from the infection, you may need a liver transplant.
On this World Hepatitis Day, take a close look at your own lifestyle to assess whether you are at risk. If you are eligible for a vaccination, don’t delay getting your first dose — your life could depend on it.
Find a doctor
If you think you may have been exposed to viral hepatitis, call a doctor right away. You can find one who’s right for your in our provider directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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