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The ABCs of Hepatitis

Jan. 31, 2020

Could your flu-like symptoms be more than a run-of-the-mill virus? Vague complaints of not feeling well, fever, muscle aches and loss of appetite can be a sign of hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver.

Some types of hepatitis can become chronic and cause extensive liver damage, cirrhosis (potentially fatal scarring), liver cancer and liver failure.

"A number of factors cause hepatitis, but in the U.S., the usual culprit is a viral infection by one of three different strains: hepatitis A, B or C," says Dr. Rashid Khan, gastroenterologist-hepatologist at Houston Methodist.

Hepatitis A

The hepatitis A virus is commonly transmitted when an infected person neglects to wash his or her hands after using the toilet and then handles the food you eat. The liver usually heals completely within one to two months in most people.

The hepatitis A vaccine is advised for:

  • All children
  • People with liver disease
  • Day-care workers
  • Household members of infected people
  • International travelers

 

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B virus is spread through contact with the blood, saliva, semen or vaginal secretions of infected people. Pregnant women should be tested for hepatitis B because their babies can become infected during childbirth.

The infection usually resolves within six months for most adults, at which point most people develop immunity to the virus. Treatment for chronic hepatitis B infection may include medications and ongoing monitoring of liver health.

The hepatitis B vaccine is advised for:

  • All infants and children
  • Hemodialysis patients
  • People with liver disease
  • International travelers
  • Health care, emergency or correctional facility workers

 

Hepatitis C

The hepatitis C virus can lead to acute or chronic infection of the liver.

"It's the most common type of chronic hepatitis found in the U.S. and is spread through direct exposure to infected blood," Dr. Khan explains.

While no vaccine exists for hepatitis C, acute and chronic types of the illness can be cured with the use of direct-acting antiviral agents prescribed by your doctor.

Your doctor may recommend hepatitis C testing if you:

  • Were born between 1945 and 1965
  • Had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
  • Received clotting factors (used by hemophiliacs) before 1987
  • Had/have tattoos or body piercings
  • Used/use injected drugs and shared needles

 

What are the symptoms of hepatitis?

The illnesses share some common symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Dark-colored urine or light-colored bowel movements

 

Not everyone with hepatitis has symptoms.

"Millions of people become infected, suffer liver damage and transmit the viruses to others unknowingly," Dr. Khan says.

How to prevent hepatitis

Take these steps to protect yourself and your family against hepatitis:

  • If you think you've been exposed to hepatitis, see your doctor right away. Receiving immune globulin and vaccinations may thwart infection
  • Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B
  • Wash your hands before preparing and eating food, and after using the bathroom and changing diapers
  • Don't eat raw shellfish
  • Avoid sharing personal items, such as toothbrushes and razors
  • Don't share or reuse hypodermic needles
  • If you're pregnant, get tested for hepatitis viruses
  • Before getting a tattoo or body piercing, be sure the facility is licensed and meets all health and safety requirements
  • Avoid unprotected sex with an infected partner
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