What You Don’t Know About Hepatitis Can Hurt You
May 25, 2018
More than four million Americans are living with viral hepatitis, but most don’t know they’re infected.
Many people can live with hepatitis for decades without feeling sick or exhibiting any symptoms. But left untreated, there are three different types of viral hepatitis which can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer or even cirrhosis, a condition that causes permanent scarring of the liver.
In honor of Hepatitis Awareness Month, learn how the different types of viral hepatitis are spread, as well as how they can be prevented or treated.
Hepatitis A can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months.
It is usually spread by contact with people who are infected or from contact with objects, food, water or drinks contaminated by the feces of an infected person, which can easily happen if someone doesn’t properly wash his or her hands after using the toilet. It’s important to know that not all people with hepatitis A have symptoms, but it’s more likely for adults to have symptoms than children. If symptoms develop, they usually appear two to six weeks after being infected and may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Dark urine
- Gray-colored stools
- Joint pain
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Severe stomach pains and diarrhea (mainly in children)
The good news is that hepatitis A is easily prevented with a safe and effective vaccine. For the best protection, it is recommended that children receive two doses of Hep A vaccine with the first dose being administered between 12 and 23 months of age, and a second dose administered 6 to 18 months after the first dose. Adults who have not been previously vaccinated, or who are at risk due to their work or travel. should also be vaccinated. Since the introduction of the vaccine, cases of hepatitis A have plummeted across the country. However, outbreaks still do occur.
Currently, there are reported outbreaks in West Virginia, Kentucky and California in which hundreds of cases have been identified and several deaths have occurred. This is why all everyone should ensure they are protected against hepatitis A.
People who get infected with the hepatitis B virus, especially young children, can go on to develop a chronic or lifelong infection which can cause serious liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer or cirrhosis.
Hepatitis B virus can be spread through contact with an infected person’s blood, semen, or other body fluids. This may happen when someone has a cut or sore, when someone is bitten by another person (as in the case of children in daycare), through the sharing of a toothbrush or food has been chewed (like in the case of young children), from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth, through sexual contact, or by sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment.
Not all people with hepatitis B have symptoms. However, if they occur, they usually appear about three months after infection and can range from mild to severe, including:
- Dark urine
- Joint, muscle and stomach pain
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea, diarrhea and vomiting
- Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated. The vaccine is recommended for:
- All infants, starting with the first dose of hepatitis B vaccine within 24 hours of birth. This shot acts as a safety net, reducing the risk of a child getting hepatitis B from moms or family members who may not know they are infected with the disease. Additional doses of the vaccine should be given between 1 and 2 months, and between 6 and 18 months of age.Newborns who become infected with hepatitis B virus have a 90% chance of developing chronic Hepatitis B, which can eventually lead to serious health problems, including liver damage, liver cancer, and even death. This is why the birth dose has been an extremely effective way of reducing the risk of chronic Hepatitis B infection.
- All children and adolescents younger than 19 years of age who have not been fully vaccinated against hepatitis B
- Unvaccinated adults at risk for hepatitis, in addition to any adult who wants to be protected from hepatitis B.
Unfortunately, many people got infected before the hepatitis B vaccine was widely available. That’s why the CDC recommends that anyone born in areas where hepatitis B is common (such as Asia, the Pacific Islands or Africa), or whose parents were born in these regions, get tested for hepatitis B.
You can learn more about who may be at increased risk of hepatitis B here. Fortunately, treatments are available that can delay or reduce the risk of developing liver cancer.
For some people, hepatitis C is a short-term illness, but for 70%–85% of people who become infected, it becomes a long-term, chronic infection which can cause serious liver damage and even liver cancer over time. Unfortunately, the majority of infected people are not aware of their infection because they are not clinically ill.
In the past, hepatitis C was spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. However, widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1990 and the hepatitis C virus was virtually eliminated from the blood supply by 1992. Today, most people become infected with hepatitis C by sharing needles, syringes, or any other equipment to inject drugs. For reasons that are not entirely understood, people born from 1945 to 1965 are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other age groups.
Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. However, once diagnosed, most people can be treated and cured in just 8 to 12 weeks, reducing liver cancer risk by 75%. This is why awareness and testing is so critical.
The CDC has developed an online Hepatitis Risk Assessment to help people find out if they should get tested or vaccinated for viral hepatitis.
The assessment, which takes only five minutes, will provide personalized testing and vaccination recommendations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and/or hepatitis C. Take it today and protect yourself from these viruses that can so easily go undetected.
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