The word “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver and is also the name of the family of viral infections that affect the liver. The most common infections are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, and they are caused by three different viruses. Each can result in similar symptoms, but they are transmitted differently and do not affect the liver the same way.
Hepatitis A, for instance, only occurs as an acute or new infection and does not become chronic. People usually don’t need treatment for hepatitis A. Hepatitis B and C also causes acute infections, but some people will go on to develop a chronic infection with long-term liver problems. Currently, there are vaccines only to prevent hepatitis A and B, but not C.
Hepatitis A lasts from a few weeks to several months and is spread when a person ingests even microscopic amounts of fecal matter from an infected person, and from contact with objects, food or drinks that are contaminated.
Transmission of hepatitis A can occur two ways. One is person-to-person contact. This can happen when an infected person does not properly wash his or her hands after going to the bathroom and then touches other objects or food. Another way is when a parent or caregiver does not properly wash his or her hands after changing a diaper or cleaning up the feces of someone infected with the virus.
The second way transmission typically occurs is through contaminated food or water. Simply eating or drinking food that is contaminated with the virus can spread it, including frozen and undercooked food. This occurs more often in areas with poor sanitary conditions. The most common contaminated food and drinks are fruits, vegetables, shellfish, ice and water. The U.S. prevents hepatitis A from spreading in water with the use of chlorine, which kills the virus if it enters the water supply.
How to prevent it
The best way to prevent hepatitis A is by getting the vaccine. It’s given in two shots, six months apart, and is highly effective at preventing hepatitis A. Protection begins two to four weeks after the first injections and the second shot provides long-term protection.
Symptoms and treatment
Many times people with hepatitis A do not display symptoms. But if symptoms do occur, they appear as fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, joint pain, jaundice and clay-colored bowel movements. There are no specific treatments for hepatitis A, but most people will feel sick for a few months before they feel better.
Fact: Hepatitis A can survive in very harsh conditions, even in the highly acidic digestive tract of humans. It also can live outside the body for months. Boiling or cooking foods in liquid for at least a minute at 185°F will kill the virus, but freezing the virus does not kill it.
Hepatitis B is also a contagious liver disease that can be mild or severe and can be acute or chronic. This means it’s possible for the infection to become a lifelong illness. Beginning in 1990, routine vaccination of children for hepatitis B was implemented in the U.S. and it dramatically decreased the rates of the disease here, especially among children.
Hepatitis B is spread when blood, semen and other body fluid infected with hepatitis B enters the body of someone not infected. The most common causes are birth, which can spread from an infected mother to her baby, sex with an infected partner, sharing needles and syringes, sharing razors and toothbrushes with an infected person, direct contact with blood or open sores of an infected person and exposure to needlestick injuries.
How to prevent it
A vaccine is available to prevent hepatitis B. It’s safe and effective and is given as three to four shots over a six-month period. There is also a combination hepatitis A and B vaccine available.
Symptoms and treatment
The symptoms for acute hepatitis B are the same for hepatitis A, but those with chronic hepatitis B typically have no symptoms for as many as 20 to 30 years. About 15 to 25 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B develop serious liver conditions, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Treatment for chronic hepatitis B depends on the person and should be monitored regularly for signs of liver disease. Several medications are available to treat hepatitis B and more are in development, but some people do not need to be on medications and the drugs may cause side effects.
Fact: A pregnant woman with hepatitis B can pass the disease to her baby during birth, but there are ways to prevent it. The baby must be given a shot called hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) and the first dose of the hepatitis C vaccine within 12 hours after birth, and then the rest of the vaccine series over the next one to 15 months to help prevent the child from getting the disease.
HBIG is a substance made from human blood samples that contains antibodies against hepatitis B and can provide three months of protection.
Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C can be acute or chronic and is primarily spread the contact with infected blood from another person. It’s a contagious liver disease that can range from mild to serious and can lead to lifelong illness that attacks the liver.
Today the most common transmission for hepatitis C is through sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Prior to 1992, before widespread screening of the blood supply began in the U.S., the most common mode of transmission was through blood transfusions and organ transplants. It is also possible to spread hepatitis C through sexual contact, but the risk of transmission is thought to be low.
Symptoms and treatment
Like the other forms of hepatitis, hepatitis C often does not present symptoms and people with the disease may not even know they have it. In people who do not symptoms, hepatitis C is often discovered through routine blood tests to measure liver function. Chronic hepatitis C can lead to liver damage, liver failure and liver cancer. For those people who do exhibit symptoms, they are similar to those for hepatitis A and B.
Treatment for hepatitis C has recently changed dramatically due to new drugs coming on the market. These drugs can essentially cure the disease in certain people, and have fewer side effects than previous treatments. These new treatments include sofosbuvir and simeprevir, which are included on this list of FDA approved drugs for the treatment of hepatitis C.
Fact: Around 15 to 25 percent of people who develop an acute hepatitis C infection will clear the virus from their bodies without treatment and will not develop a chronic infection. Experts are not sure why some people are able to do this.
n.p. (2013, November 19). “Hepatitis A FAQs for the Public.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/A/aFAQ.htm#overview.
n.p. (2009, June 9). “Hepatitis B FAQ for the Public.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/B/bFAQ.htm#overview
n.p. (2013, May 6). “Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/C/cFAQ.htm#overview
Published On: July 25, 2014