Although hepatitis isn’t known as one of the top 10 leading causes of death, each year, the virus kills almost 6,000 people in the United States. There are five basic forms of the virus, but the most common types are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. According to the Center For Disease Control (CDC), the number of new hepatitis A cases is 3,365, hepatitis B is 3,409, and hepatitis C is 4,225. Older adults are also five times as likely to have hepatitis C than younger adults mainly due to the minimal testing that was done during the seventies and eighties and that in the past, donated blood and organs weren’t screened as thoroughly as they are now.
How’s Hepatitis Contacted?
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver—a vital organ that processes nutrients—filters the blood, and fights infections. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function is affected. Often, hepatitis is caused by a virus, but heavy alcohol use, toxins, medication, and certain medical conditions can also cause it. Depending on the type of hepatitis, it’s contracted differently. Hepatitis A is most commonly transmitted through injecting fecal matter from food or drinks contaminated with feces from a person infected with hepatitis A. Hepatitis B is mainly spread through blood, semen, or bodily fluids from a person infected with the hepatitis B virus. Your risk of contracting hepatitis B is increased through injection drug use, having sex with an infected partner, and sharing razors with infected people. The CDC reports that 1.2 million people in the United States live with this hepatitis B. Hepatitis C is spread when blood from a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who isn’t infected. It’s most commonly spread through injection drug use and sexual contact and approximately 2.7 to 3.9 million Americans are living with this chronic disease.
Early Signs and Symptoms of Hepatitis
For hepatitis B and C, many people don’t even realize they realize they have it. When the symptoms do occur, they usually take a few weeks or month and they include fever, feelings of exhaustion, poor appetite, sore muscles, stomach pain, joint pain, dark urine, itchy skin, and jaundice. Many people who have acute hepatitis B or C don’t show any symptoms which leads them to develop chronic cases that can last 15 or more years before they are diagnosed.
If you do find out you’re a carrier, it’s imperative that you take the proper steps to prevent the disease from spreading. There are treatments available, but it’s important that you act quickly because if you wait too long, you can suffer from liver damage. You also need to avoid alcohol as it can further damage the liver and make it harder for you to fight the infection. Poor diets have also been shown to negatively impact the disease.
To diagnose hepatitis, your doctor will take your history to determine if you have any risk factors. They will then do a physical exam, in which they will press down on your abdomen to see if it’s painful, check your liver to see if it’s enlarged and look at your eyes to see if they are yellow. Your doctor may also do a liver function test using a blood sample, blood tests, ultrasounds, and a liver biopsy that involves your doctor taking sample tissue from your liver. For hepatitis C, viral load tests can check your blood for genetic markers and the progression of the virus and there are hepatitis C home tests to determine if you have the virus. For these home tests, a sample of your blood is collected and then sent to a testing laboratory for analysis.
The hepatitis treatment depends on which type of hepatitis you have and whether it’s acute or chronic. Hepatitis A and acute hepatitis B, don’t usually need treatment as they’re short-term illness, but bed rest may be necessary to reduce discomfort and there are vaccinations to prevent the infections. For chronic hepatitis B and acute and chronic hepatitis C, there are antiviral medications and vaccinations. People who develop cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver disease, may be candidates for liver transplants. Cirrhosis can be caused by hepatic steatosis, also known as fatty liver, which can be found in people with hepatitis C.
Antiviral medications are pills taken once a day and they attack the virus, preventing it from spreading. These medications are meant to clear a person’s body of the virus and to stop or slow down the damage done to the liver. They also reduce the chance of developing liver cancer and the need for a liver transplant.
When hepatitis has caused significant damage to the liver or liver failure, a liver transplant may be the next step. During the procedure, a surgeon will remove your liver and replace it with one that’s been donated, but the replacement is only the first step in curing the disease as the virus can return. The person must also use antiviral medications to prevent damaging the new liver.
There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, but there’s still not one for hepatitis C. If you have hepatitis C, it’s important to still get vaccinated as these viruses can damage your liver, making your hepatitis C worse. The hepatitis A vaccine is two doses given six months apart and it can protect you for over 40 years. The CDC recommends for everyone over the age of one-years-old to get vaccinated. The hepatitis B vaccine can be given with the hepatitis A vaccine and it will protect infants, children, and adults from contracting hepatitis B. The CDC recommends vaccinating all newborns and healthcare and medical personnel for hepatitis B.