Learn the basic facts about the various forms of hepatitis so you can protect and support your liver and make the necessary lifestyle changes to improve your health.
Although news headlines about hepatitis outbreaks are everywhere, mystery continues to shroud the facts around the disease. Hepatitis is a general term that means inflammation of the liver; it can be acute or chronic and has a number of different causes.
Hepatitis is the most common of all serious contagious diseases. Depending on an individual’s sex practices, any type of viral hepatitis can be communicable through sexual activity. Thousands of hepatitis cases are reported each year, but researchers estimate that the true number of people in the United States who have the disease (acute and chronic) is much higher than the number reported. Unfortunately, many hepatitis cases go undiagnosed because they are mistaken for the flu or do not cause any symptoms.
Hepatitis is serious because it interferes with the many functions of the liver. Among other things, the liver produces bile to aid digestion, manufactures hormones, regulates the chemical composition of the blood and filters toxic and potentially harmful substances from the bloodstream. This means everything we eat or drink passes through the liver. An inflamed liver has many implications, and can result in mild illness or severe debilitation – up to and including death.
Types of Hepatitis
Hepatitis can be caused by one of many viruses known by the alphabetical names A, B, C, D and E. Hepatitis A, B and C are the most common types of viral hepatitis found in the United States, while hepatitis D and E are less prevalent. Additional viruses may be responsible for hepatitis, such as those that cause mononucleosis, herpes or chickenpox. Although each virus can attack and potentially damage the liver, each one is unique, causing a completely separate disease from the others. This translates to the following:
· Even if you are infected with one hepatitis virus, you can still acquire another one.
· One form of hepatitis cannot transform into another.
· Vaccination for hepatitis A or B does not protect you from any other hepatitis virus.
· It is possible to be simultaneously infected with more than one hepatitis virus.
In addition to viral hepatitis, drugs, alcohol abuse and environmental toxins can also cause inflammation of the liver. Other factors that can lead to hepatitis include trauma or an autoimmune dysfunction where a person’s body makes antibodies that attack the liver.
Hepatitis A is considered the least dangerous form of hepatitis because it typically resolves on its own and does not lead to chronic inflammation of the liver. Spread through the fecal-oral route, the hepatitis A virus commonly infects others through improper handling of food, careless hygiene practices, contact with infected household members, sharing of toys at day-care centers and eating raw shellfish from polluted waters.
Hand washing is the best prevention for hepatitis A. Hands should be washed with soap and water after going to the bathroom, before eating and after changing a diaper. Fortunately, Hepatitis A is the most common vaccine-preventable disease in the entire world, and those who get HAV develop immunity from ever contracting it again.
Hepatitis B is 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV. Hepatitis B has been detected in blood, sweat, tears, saliva, semen, vaginal secretions, menstrual blood and breast milk, rendering it transmissible in three primary ways:
1. Through blood or blood products
2. Through sexual contact
3. From mother to child during pregnancy and childbirth
The majority of hepatitis B patients recover completely, but a small percentage of them become carriers. Carriers can unknowingly transmit the disease to others even when their own symptoms have vanished. A smaller percentage of those infected progress to chronic hepatitis B, which carries the lifelong dangers and complications of liver disease. A series of three injections, the hepatitis B vaccination is the best prevention.
Hepatitis C is approximately 7 times more infectious than HIV. Hepatitis C is the most common cause of chronic liver disease in the United States and is the number one reason for U.S. liver transplants. Since the virus is primarily spread from blood to blood contact, the primary ways hepatitis C is transmitted are from blood transfusions prior to 1992 and the sharing of contaminated needles. In one third of all hepatitis C cases, the source of the disease is unknown.
Because it is difficult for the body to clear it, approximately 85 percent of those infected develop chronic Hepatitis C. A recent nationwide study suggests that 4.1 million people in the U.S. have been infected with hepatitis C virus, and most of these individuals have chronic infection. For a broader view of the quantity of those infected with hepatitis C, it is estimated that slightly over 1 million Americans are infected with HIV.
Hepatitis Symptoms and Complications
Mild cases of hepatitis A and many cases of hepatitis C exhibit few or no symptoms at all. Symptoms of hepatitis generally include the yellowing of the eyes and skin, abdominal pain or swelling, muscle weakness, joint pain, rashes, arthritis, nausea or vomiting, dark urine, loss of appetite, fever and fatigue. When hepatitis damages the liver’s cells, scar tissue is formed, preventing the cells from functioning. With fewer healthy liver cells, the body begins to show symptoms ranging from mild (such as fatigue) to severe (such as mental confusion). Although many cases of hepatitis are not a serious threat to health, the disease can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis, liver failure and death.
Currently, there is no guaranteed cure for hepatitis. Hepatitis A generally self-resolves, and the medical community is racing to find effective treatments for the chronic forms of hepatitis. The available western medical treatments for hepatitis B and C have a relatively low success rate and can have severe side effects. Until better treatments are devised, many infected individuals get the best results with a combination of western medicine, alternative medicine and lifestyle modifications.
Understanding some of the basic facts about hepatitis can help distinguish between situations requiring vigilance and those inapplicable to you. Viral hepatitis is a significant health issue demanding everyone’s awareness. While our communities place great emphasis on HIV education, the infectivity, prevalence and danger of hepatitis infection places it in an equally deserving attention bracket.
www.ghi.com, The Basics, WebMD, 2005.
www.iwannaknow.org, Hepatitis Quick Facts, American Social Health Association, 2006.
www.today.reuters.com, Four million infected with hepatitis C in US, Annals of Internal Medicine, May 16, 2006, Reuters, 2006.