Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, the largest organ in the body and one that helps us digest food, convert nutrients into energy the body can use and removes toxic substances.
Hepatitis most frequently occurs as a virus and some of the most common versions are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Hepatitis A (HAV)
Hepatitis A is caused by the ingestion of feces, even in minuscule amounts, when in close person-to-person contact with an infected person. It also can be transmitted through sexual contact with an individual who already has the virus, or by eating or drinking contaminated food or drink.
People at risk for developing hepatitis A include homosexual men as well as those who:
- Travel to regions with high rates of the disease
- Have sexual contact with someone suffering from the disease
- Live in the same house as someone with the disease
- Share needles or syringes for drugs
Of the forms of the disease, hepatitis A is the mildest. Most people recover without any lasting liver damage, and in cases with few or mild symptoms, some people may not even be aware they have the disease. While no medication is available for treatment of hepatitis A, a vaccine is recommended for those who are at high risk for the disease.
The rate of acute hepatitis B is increasing, a reflection of the growing use of opioids and other injectable drugs. In 2017, nearly 22,000 people were newly infected with the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood, semen and other fluids of an infected person. This can include during birth to an infected mother, sexual contact or sharing contaminated needles or syringes with an infected person, or punctures or cuts from instruments that are infected. The initial infection is considered acute hepatitis, and most people are able to recover from the virus. But for some, the virus lingers after six months, a condition called chronic hepatitis.
People at risk for developing hepatitis B include:
- Infants born to infected mothers
- Injection drug users
- Sexual partners of someone infected
- A person with multiple sex partners
- Homosexual men
- Healthcare workers exposed to blood on the job
- Travelers in regions with high rates of hepatitis B
- Hemodialysis patients
Symptoms of hepatitis can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, gray-colored bowel movements and jaundice. The incubation period for hepatitis B is an average of 120 days, so a traveler, for example, may have returned from a trip several months before experiencing symptoms.
Hepatitis B is more serious than hepatitis A. Although most people with hepatitis B recover, 15 percent to 25 percent of those with chronic hepatitis B develop chronic liver disease. Testing is recommended for at-risk groups, and some patients with chronic hepatitis B are treated with antiviral medications.
Caused by the hepatitis C virus, this illness affects at least 2.7 to 3.9 million people Like the other forms of the disease, hepatitis C can be transmitted through bodily fluid or sexual contact, but is most commonly transmitted through blood of an infected person by sharing needles and syringes. Hepatitis C is increasing, in conjunction with the opioid epidemic.
Those most at-risk for hepatitis C are:
- Current and former drug users who inject
- People who received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- People who received blood transfusions or organ donations before 1992
- Hemodialysis patients
About 20 percent to 30 percent of those who develop hepatitis C experience the acute symptoms, but tend to recover without lasting liver damage. However, 75 percent to 85 percent of those with hepatitis C develop a chronic infection, which frequently leads to chronic liver disease. There is no hepatitis C vaccine, but testing is recommended for those at risk. It is highly recommended that baby boomers, those born between 1945 and 1965, get tested for hepatitis C. New antiviral medications have been successful in curing patients with chronic hepatitis C.
Hepatitis is a disease with a wide range of impact—on both those who suffer from it and the people they come in contact with. If you think you may have any form of the disease, talk with your doctor.
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