Whenever you encounter a medical term that contains the term “itis,” you can be sure it’s referring to inflammation. Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver, which can be caused by many things.
WHAT IS HEPATITIS?
As your largest internal organ, the liver performs many vital functions. Because it’s such a workhorse in the body, the liver can become inflamed for many reasons. Sometimes the inflammation goes away on its own. Other times, you may need treatment. While hepatitis can be caused by drug and alcohol use, as well as trauma, most of the time people use the word “hepatitis” to refer to a viral infection of the liver. There are several different hepatitis viruses. In general, you may be most at risk of developing hepatitis A, B or C. Let’s look at these a little more closely.
- Hepatitis A usually is transmitted from one person to another through the fecal contamination of food or drinking water. It usually goes away on its own.
- Hepatitis B can be transmitted through exposure to infected body fluid, such as blood. You can reduce your risk of developing hepatitis B by getting vaccinated against it.
- Hepatitis C is a chronic disease that is directly transmitted through the blood. You can get hepatitis C from sharing needles, poorly cleaned piercing devices or even a blood transfusion that occurred prior to 1992.
RISK FACTORS FOR HEPATITIS
You may be at higher risk for getting a hepatitis virus if you exhibit any of these risk factors:
- You eat at unsanitary restaurants or other facilities
- You travel abroad without appropriate vaccinations
- You ever (even once) shared a needle with another person
- You received a tattoo or piercing in an unsanitary environment
- You work in a high-risk environment, such as a medical laboratory, hospital or other setting in which you’re routinely exposed to blood
- You require routine hemodialysis
SYMPTOMS OF HEPATITIS
Hepatitis often exhibits no symptoms until it’s fairly advanced. Symptoms may include:
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes (called “jaundice”)
- Dark-colored urine
- Pale bowel movements
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and/or vomiting
Liver inflammation can cause tissue scarring, called cirrhosis. Your best bet is to avoid hepatitis rather than try to get treated once you have it. You can help prevent hepatitis from all causes by:
- Reducing your alcohol and/or drug consumption
- Reducing your fatty food intake
- Practicing good hand-washing technique whenever you handle food
- Practicing good needle-stick procedures
- Not sharing needles with anyone else
- Not re-using a needle on yourself or anyone else
- Inspecting the cleaning protocols of any tattoo parlor or piercing shop you use
- Getting vaccinated against hepatitis B
It’s also a good idea to get a simple blood test to check your hepatitis status. Hepatitis C, in particular, can linger for decades in the body without becoming symptomatic. Left undetected or untreated, hepatitis C can cause such severe liver scarring that you ultimately need a liver transplant.
Treatment for hepatitis depends on the cause. For example, if you’re experiencing hepatitis due to alcohol abuse, the treatment likely will consist of alcohol detoxification and quitting drinking.
Hepatitis A usually clears up on its own and doesn’t require treatment. Treatment for hepatitis B usually includes getting vaccinated after a possible exposure to the virus. This means if you experience a needle-stick when drawing someone’s blood, for example, you will undergo treatment to try to avoid becoming infected with the virus. Once infected, hepatitis B often clears up on its own, though it can turn into a chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis B (HBV) infection can be managed to a degree with antiviral drugs.
Hepatitis C is a common bloodborne virus that has no cure. Early detection of hepatitis C (HCV) is important so you can start getting antiviral drugs that may reduce liver inflammation and scarring. Left untreated, HCV may ultimately destroy the liver, requiring a liver transplant.
HEPATITIS: KNOW YOUR STATUS
People born in the “baby boom” years between 1946 and 1964 are at higher risk of having HCV without knowing it. No matter your age, you should ask your health care provider to review your vaccinations and discuss routine blood testing to discover your hepatitis status. Prevention and early intervention are key to keeping your liver healthy for life.