World Hepatitis Day is a time to be informed about the potential risks and treatments for various types of hepatitis to keep your liver safe.
Hepatitis refers to the harmful inflammation of the liver due to infection, and it can have several different viral causes. There are five types of hepatitis—A, B, C, D and E—each type is caused by a different virus.
Some types of hepatitis are caused entirely by unsafe drinking water or unsterilized medical equipment and can only be passed on through infected blood. However, others have lifestyle components and are caused in part by cirrhosis of the liver from alcohol or fat storage from fatty liver disease.
Keeping one’s liver safe from hepatitis involves staying up-to-date on vaccines—especially if traveling to parts of the world where hepatitis viruses are more common—getting tested for the virus, and always making sure one’s health providers use sterile techniques. Some types of hepatitis are sexually transmitted infections, so safe sex practices are important as well.
Hepatitis can remain contagious in the blood with no symptoms. However, blood tests are available for people who suspect they, a family member, or a sexual partner is infected with one or more of the hepatitis viruses.
Acute Hepatitis B
Acute hepatitis occurs in the first six months after exposure to the virus. It can occasionally lead to chronic infection over time, but this is rare in adults. However, acute hepatitis can also be a dangerous condition in its own right. Sometimes acute hepatitis is extremely mild or even symptom-free, but other times it can lead to hospitalization.
95% of adults infected with acute hepatitis B will not go on to develop chronic infections, but in infants the risk is about 90% that it will become chronic. The risk goes down as children get older, with anyone over the age of 5 having a much lower chance than those under age 5.
Hepatitis A and B are preventable by a vaccine in the U.S. and staying up to date on one’s vaccine schedule is the best way to keep those most vulnerable to the disease—infants and very young children—safe.
Chronic Hepatitis B
Chronic hepatitis B can be deadly in some cases because of long-term damage to the liver. However, most adults who contract it will live long and symptom-free lives, so it is not always a cause for alarm. The risk of liver disease and liver cancer do rise with the contraction of chronic hepatitis B.
For people with chronic hepatitis B, maintaining an exercise regimen along with avoiding behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating foods high in processed fats and sugar are key to avoiding long-term liver damage.
Hepatitis B is most commonly spread by sexual contact—most cases in the U.S. spread the virus as sexually transmitted infections. Taking antivirals can reduce the risk of transmission, as is the case in pregnant women who wish to avoid transmitting the virus to their babies.
Hepatitis C is much more likely to become chronic in those who are exposed to it—about 70-85% of people exposed to the virus will develop a chronic case. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
This virus is usually only contagious nowadays through infected needles and syringes such as infected medical equipment or through drug use. The chances of contracting hepatitis C are low in those who do not inject drugs.
However, adults born in the years of 1945-1965 are the most likely to have Hepatitis C because prior to the 1990s, blood was not routinely checked for this virus and not all the same sterile techniques were used in medical treatments. For this age group in particular, it’s important to get blood checked.
Hepatitis C can be treated and often cured in people who have contracted it. So if one has ever injected drugs or was born in the years of 1945-1965, a simple blood test can prevent a health crisis later on.
Other Types of Hepatitis
Hepatitis A is spread through infected water sources, though it is extremely rare in the U.S. When traveling to countries without robust water filtration systems, a travel shot of the hepatitis A/B vaccine is recommended.
Hepatitis D develops as an offshoot of hepatitis B and is not possible to develop if one has not been infected with hepatitis B prior. The vaccine against hepatitis A/B is the best way to stay safe.
Hepatitis E is a virus that cannot be vaccinated against. However, it is a self-limiting disease that cannot become chronic. It is extremely rare in the U.S.
For more information on keeping your liver safe, take our quiz on hepatitis.