What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, resulting in short-term illness, chronic infections, and even life-threatening consequences. It may be caused by drugs, toxins, heavy alcohol use, or certain medical conditions. But in most cases, it is caused by a virus. In North America, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, B, and C.
Types of hepatitis
Each type of hepatitis has different characteristics and modes of transmission, but symptoms tend to be similar. All three types of hepatitis (A, B, and C) can be acute, lasting for about six months, while types B and C can be chronic, lasting for longer.
Hepatitis A is caused by an infection with the hepatitis A virus. This type of hepatitis is most commonly transmitted by consuming food or water contaminated by feces from a person infected with hepatitis A. This disease is closely linked with unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and poor personal hygiene. People in developing countries are particularly at risk of hepatitis A.
Hepatitis B is transmitted through contact with infectious body fluids, such as blood, vaginal secretions, or semen that contain the hepatitis B virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are nearly 1.2 million people in the United States and 350 million people worldwide currently living with this chronic disease.
Hepatitis C is transmitted through direct contact with infected body fluids, especially through injection drug use and sexual contact. It is the most common bloodborne viral infection in North America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 4 million Americans are currently living with a chronic form of this infection.
Many people with hepatitis do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected. If symptoms occur with an acute infection, they can appear anytime from two weeks to six months after exposure. Symptoms of chronic viral hepatitis can take years to develop.
The most common symptoms for hepatitis A, B, and C are:
- Loss of appetite
- Low-grade fever
- Stomach pain
- Muscle or joint aches
Less common symptoms include:
- Dark urine
- Yellowing of skin or eyes
- Pale or clay-colored stool
Symptoms of different types of hepatitis are similar, so the type and severity of hepatitis may only be diagnosed through laboratory tests. The following tests can be done to detect and diagnose an infection with a hepatitis virus:
- Blood tests
- Nucleic acid tests
- Liver biopsy
- Extraction of abdominal fluid
- Medical imaging
Treatment of acute hepatitis and chronic hepatitis are different.
There is no specific treatment to cure acute hepatitis. This type of hepatitis will normally resolve in two months without leaving any long-term effects. Treatment of hepatitis A usually involves resting, maintaining an adequate intake of fluids, and relieving symptoms of vomiting, fever, and pain.
Treatment of chronic infection with hepatitis B and C usually involves medication to eradicate the virus. Medications for chronic hepatitis B infection include Adefovir, Entecavir, Interferon, Lamivudine, Telbivudine, and Tenofovir. There are several drugs that treat chronic hepatitis C such as Daclatasvir, Elbasvir, Ledipasvir-sofosbuvir, and Sofosbuvir.
Not all patients with chronic viral hepatitis are candidates for medication-assisted treatment. Some patients need no treatment because patients with chronic hepatitis B and C may not develop progressive liver damage.
Hepatitis can be dangerous and difficult to treat, so people are advised to take precautions against possible infection.
Hepatitis A is mostly spread through infected food and water. Practicing good hygiene is one key way to avoid getting hepatitis A. If you are traveling to a developing country, you should:
- Consume food that has just been cooked
- Avoid consuming local water, ice, raw or undercooked shellfish and oysters
- Wash hands with soap after using the bathroom
Hepatitis B and C are often passed on through the transfer of infected bodily fluids during sexual intercourse and intimate sexual contact. The following steps can help decrease the risk of infection:
- Do not share needles, toothbrushes, or personal care items
- Practice safe sex using condoms
Today, the use of vaccines is very effective in preventing hepatitis. Vaccinations are available to prevent the development of hepatitis A and B. While there is currently no hepatitis C vaccine, there are two clinical trials underway.
Written by Man-tik Choy, Ph.D
Healthline. (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2019, from https://www.healthline.com/health/hepatitis#causes
MedicineNet. (n.d.). Hepatitis (Viral Hepatitis, A, B, C, D, E, G). Retrieved July 8, 2019, from https://www.medicinenet.com/viral_hepatitis/article.htm
World Health Organization. (July 8, 2019). Hepatitis A. Retrieved July 10, 2019, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hepatitis-a
World Health Organization. (July 5, 2019). Hepatitis B. Retrieved July 10, 2019, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hepatitis-b
World Health Organization. (July 9, 2019). Hepatitis C. Retrieved July 10, 2019, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hepatitis-c
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