Hepatitis: what you should know

July 28, 2015 Providence Health Team

If you have jaundice, no appetite and feel a general sense of malaise, hepatitis could be the cause.

But for many people with this liver infection, there are no symptoms. This is a concern because hepatitis can become an undetected chronic condition that over time requires a liver transplant or leads to liver cancer.

Cause and effect of hepatitis

Heavy drinking, toxins and some medications can cause hepatitis, but it’s most often caused by one of several viruses. Hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C are most common in the United States. Here’s what you should know about the five hepatitis viruses:

Hepatitis A: It is spread mainly through eating food or drinking water – even in microscopic amounts –  that’s been contaminated by feces from an infected person. People can be sick for a few weeks to a few months, but most recover with no lasting liver damage. There is a vaccination for hepatitis A, so prevention is possible. In addition, you can reduce your risk of exposure by practicing good hygiene and making sure the water you drink comes from a safe source.

Hepatitis B: It is spread through contact with blood and other bodily fluids such as saliva and semen. An infected mother can also pass the virus to a child during birth. All infants should be vaccinated against hepatitis B at birth. The virus can range from an illness lasting a few weeks to a life-long condition. About two in three people don’t know they’re infected but the virus is a leading cause of liver cancer. Some patients with chronic hepatitis B can be treated with antiviral drugs.

Hepatitis C: It is spread through blood-to-blood contact. There is no vaccine for the virus and most people who get infected develop chronic hepatitis C. Some patients are treated with antiviral drugs that can cure this form of the virus. But about 50 percent of people with the virus don’t know they’re infected. And, hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants.  Seventy-five percent of people with hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965, so people in that age group should be tested.

Hepatitis D: It is spread through contact with infected blood. This version of the virus is found only in people already infected with hepatitis B, and it’s uncommon in the United States. Hepatitis D can lead to a short-term or chronic infection. There is no vaccine, but people free of any hepatitis virus can be protected by the hepatitis B vaccine.

Hepatitis E: This form of the virus is rare in the United States, but common in countries with poor sanitation and contaminated water supplies. Hepatitis E is spread through eating food or drinking water contaminated by infected fecal matter. There is no vaccine for hepatitis E, but it resolves on its own and doesn’t lead to chronic infection.

If you aren’t vaccinated for hepatitis A or hepatitis B, or you think you should be tested, contact your Providence primary care provider.

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