Many of us have heard of hepatitis because we have gotten the vaccine or have been tested for it through our blood. But what is hepatitis? And why are we vaccinated against it? Read this blog to find out!
We all know that each organ has a specific function in our bodies. Our liver is one of the most essential as it helps our body process specific substances and fights infections. Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, which can be caused by a virus. The three most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
The hepatitis A virus is found in the stool and blood of infected individuals. It is spread by ingesting the virus – even microscopic amounts can cause infection – which can occur through unsanitary food, water, or oral-anal sex. Hepatitis A is highly contagious, but it is typically a short-term virus that does not lead to chronic issues.
Common symptoms of hepatitis A can include yellow skin or eyes, decreased appetite, abdominal discomfort or pain, fatigue, fever, and nausea. It is important to note that most people do not exhibit any symptoms of hepatitis A, but can still transmit the disease. If symptoms do develop, they usually occur 2 to 7 weeks after being infected. Most of the time symptoms will resolve within 2 months.
Diagnosis of hepatitis A is usually made through your symptom presentation and can be confirmed with a blood test. Treatment of hepatitis A is through preventative care – meaning to take medications that help with the symptoms you are experiencing. Full recovery can be slow and take several weeks to months. It is important to stay hydrated during recovery, as hepatitis A does cause multiple gastrointestinal symptoms.
Hepatitis A does not cause long-term effects. In rare cases, it can cause acute liver failure. However, this typically only happens in older patients or patients that already suffer from liver problems.
Thankfully, there is a safe and effective vaccine for hepatitis A. In America, most children are vaccinated against hepatitis A between the ages of 12-23 months. Other ways to help prevent hepatitis A are to practice good hygiene, especially after using the bathroom or before preparing food.
Hepatitis B is spread through exposure to infected blood and body fluids. This can occur through needlestick injuries, tattoos, piercings, intravenous drug use, and unprotected sex. Hepatitis B can also be passed from an infected mother to her child. The hepatitis B virus can survive outside of the body for up to 7 days, which is why precaution in any setting where bodily fluids are involved is extremely important.
The incubation period of hepatitis B can range from 30 to 180 days. Many people do not develop symptoms and do not know they are infected. Some people can develop symptoms quickly if they have an acute infection. Symptoms can include yellowing of the skin or eyes, fatigue, abdominal pain, and vomiting. People with acute illness can develop acute liver failure which can lead to death. Less than 5% of cases in adults lead to chronic illness, but 95% of cases in infancy and childhood lead to chronic disease.
Similar to hepatitis A, hepatitis B can be diagnosed through symptom presentation and a blood test. Blood tests can also distinguish between acute and chronic infection. The hepatitis B virus can cause both acute and chronic infections. For acute hepatitis B, treatment is similar to that of hepatitis A – preventative care and maintenance of fluids. For chronic infection, oral antiviral medication is typically recommended which can help slow the progression of life-threatening conditions.
Chronic hepatitis B can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver failure, liver cancer, and death. Many people who suffer from chronic hepatitis B must continue treatment for life. Options such as chemotherapy, surgery, and liver transplantation are available to those that have access and can afford it.
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is through vaccination. It is recommended that infants get vaccinated within 24 hours of birth, followed by more doses. As hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids, it is important to get tattoos and piercings from reputable locations and to practice safe sex.
Hepatitis C is spread through the blood of an infected person and can cause both acute and chronic infections. Most people typically get infected by hepatitis C through contaminated needles. This can occur in a medical setting or with tattoos, piercings, and intravenous drug use. For more than half of the people that get infected, hepatitis C develops into a chronic infection with lasting problems.
About 80% of people do not exhibit symptoms after initial infection with hepatitis C. Those who do develop acute symptoms can experience yellowing of the skin or eyes, fever, fatigue, decreased appetite, abdominal pain, and vomiting. The incubation period can range from 2 weeks to 6 months.
Most people go undiagnosed because they remain asymptomatic. For people that do develop chronic hepatitis C, it is still often undiagnosed because people remain asymptomatic until decades later when they develop serious liver damage. Two blood tests are used to determine hepatitis C infection, one which can detect acute infection and the other chronic. Most people who have an acute infection will clear the disease on their own. Those with chronic diseases need to undergo treatment with the goal of curing the disease. Treatment can consist of antiviral medication of varying lengths depending on if the hepatitis C virus has caused cirrhosis.
As mentioned, most people that become infected with hepatitis C develop a chronic infection that can lead to very serious diseases. Hepatitis C can result in liver damage, liver failure, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and death. Similar to hepatitis B, there are treatment options for these more serious diseases but are dependent on accessibility and affordability.
Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The best way to prevent hepatitis C is to be aware of your exposure to blood. Going to reputable, licensed medical facilities, tattoo shops, and piercing shops will keep you from contracting the virus.
The different hepatitis viruses all have varying severity, duration, and outcomes. It is important to talk to your doctor if you believe you are experiencing any symptoms of hepatitis, or believe to have been exposed. Book an appointment today if you would like to discuss the hepatitis viruses further!
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