The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has designated the month of May as Hepatitis Awareness Month—and May 19 as Hepatitis Testing Day. The goal of setting aside the entire month of May is to educate people on what the CDC considers a hidden epidemic and encourage them to get tested.
- What is hepatitis?
The word “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is most often caused by one of several viruses, which is why it is often called viral hepatitis. There are many types of hepatitis. In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
- What causes hepatitis?
- Hepatitis A. Eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water causes hepatitis A. Raw shellfish, fruits, vegetables, and undercooked foods are common culprits in hepatitis A outbreaks. Nearly everyone who develops hepatitis A makes a full recovery—it does not lead to chronic disease.
- Hepatitis B. For some people, a hepatitis B infection can lead to a chronic or lifelong illness. According to the CDC, the hepatitis B virus can be spread when blood, semen or other body fluid infected with the virus enters the body of a person not infected. Unprotected sex with an infected partner, as well as sharing needles, syringes or other drug-injection equipment can transmit the virus. It can also be passed from an infected woman to her baby at birth. There is a vaccine for hepatitis B.
- Hepatitis C. Up to 75 percent of people living with Hepatitis C do not know they are infected. Because many people exhibit no symptoms when they contract hepatitis C, most people who become infected with the virus go on to develop a chronic infection that can cause serious liver problems. The hepatitis C virus is usually spread when blood from a person infected enters the body of someone who is not infected. Most people become infected with hepatitis C by sharing needles, syringes, or any other equipment to inject drugs. People who received a blood transfusion before 1992 also have a higher risk. Before that year, donated blood was not screened for the hepatitis C virus.
Not all forms of hepatitis are infectious. Hepatitis can also be caused by alcohol and some other toxins and infections, as well as from our own autoimmune process (the body attacks itself).
- Why the big concern?
- The CDC warns that rates of new hepatitis C infections have been on the rise in young people who inject drugs in recent years.
- In addition, the CDC says, people born from 1945–1965, or baby boomers, are five times more likely to have hepatitis C. The reason that baby boomers have high rates of hepatitis C is not completely understood. Most baby boomers are believed to have become infected in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when transmission of hepatitis C was the highest.
- Unless treated properly, inflammation from chronic hepatitis can lead to cell damage and, eventually, liver cancer. The CDC reported in 2010 that a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) was on the rise and that chronic hepatitis B and C infections were to blame.
- What are the symptoms?
For all types of hepatitis, when symptoms present themselves people experience:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Gray-colored bowel movements
- Joint pain
- Is there a test I can take to determine my risk factors?
Yes, the CDC has a 5-minute risk assessment test you can take to help you determine if you should see your doctor. Take the test here.
- Can hepatitis be treated?
Treatment depends on the type of hepatitis contracted.
Hepatitis A. Hepatitis A will normally pass on its own within a couple of months with rest and hydration. You should be under the care of a physician, stay away from work/school, avoid preparing food for others, wash your hands regularly and avoid sharing towels.
Hepatitis B. You can be vaccinated against the hepatitis B virus. If you haven’t been vaccinated and you contract the virus, treatment depends on how active the virus is and whether you are at risk for liver damage. If you are exposed to hepatitis B the sooner you receive treatment the better. Receiving an injection of hepatitis B immune globulin within 12 hours of coming in contact with the virus may help protect you from developing hepatitis B. In addition, your doctor may determine your hepatitis B infection is acute which means it is short-lived and will go away on its own with rest and hydration. If your virus is chronic you may need to be given medications to fight the virus. If your liver is severely damaged, you may need a liver transplant.
Hepatitis C. It is common for people to live with hepatitis C for years without knowing they have it, because they do not develop symptoms. As a result, most people diagnosed with hepatitis C find out that they already have a long-term, chronic infection. The good news is that it can be cured and new drugs are making it easier. Which medications are best for you depends on how much liver scarring you have experienced. Most of the time, the new medicines remove all traces of the virus from your blood. How long you need treatment can vary from 8 to 24 weeks.
- How can I learn more?
Sources used for this blog include the following links, which we encourage you to use to learn more about hepatitis and why you should be tested.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
American Liver Foundation
American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases
Content on our website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911. Always consult your physician before making any changes to your medical treatment.