Variety may be the spice of life, but not when it comes to hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). Whether acute (short-term), or chronic (long-term), each one from this “family” of viruses can have an extremely serious impact on the body. Yet, hepatitis can be prevented, either by avoiding exposure, or (with the exception of hepatitis C, and the rarer D and E strains), by getting vaccinated.
Viral hepatitis is a leading cause of infectious death, cutting short between 12,000 and 18,000 American lives annually. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 3.5 to 5.3 million in the U.S. live with viral hepatitis. Since some types don’t produce symptoms, most people are unaware that they’re even infected. While acute hepatitis A and B, respectively, have declined since 1990 with the emergence of effective vaccines, hepatitis C has been on the rise since 2015. Deaths from hepatitis C alone have surpassed those from 60 other infectious diseases, including HIV, pneumococcal illness, and tuberculosis. Baby boomers (born 1945-1965) are five times more likely to get “hep” C and comprise 75 percent of those with it, because their exposure to the disease pre-dated both increased educational awareness and vaccine availability.
Generally, exposure to hepatitis can include everything from intravenous drug use/sharing of needles, and unsterilized body piercing or tattooing, to the sharing of bodily fluids through unprotected sex, general exposure, or through birth via an infected mother. Groups at particular risk include health professionals; recipients of blood transfusions or organs before July 1992, or, clotting agents before 1987; those undergoing kidney dialysis; gay men; and those who are HIV-positive. Travelers going abroad should guard against food or water contaminated with the highly contagious hepatitis A by peeling and washing fruits and vegetables, avoiding undercooked fish or meat, and using only bottled or boiled water — and no ice. Hand-washing is crucial. For those already infected with any kind of hepatitis, alcohol use impacts liver health. Ditto prescription and over-the-counter non-aspirin pain relievers.
Some hepatitis viruses share wide-ranging symptoms; some do not, but watch for abdominal or joint pain, fatigue, fever, dark urine, gray-colored stools, jaundice (yellowing of the skin), loss of appetite, or vomiting.
Hepatitis A is spread through exposure to feces (a vaccine is available). Hepatitis B is acquired through blood, semen, or other bodily fluids (it too, has a vaccine). Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that can develop into chronic liver damage, cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, or death (there’s no vaccine yet). Hepatitis D and E are both less common in the U.S. (with no vaccines available currently for either strain).
Talk to your doctor about your own personal risks, precautions against infection (including lifestyle changes), and available vaccines. If you’re diagnosed with hepatitis, your doctor will determine the course and timing of treatment options. The bottom line: If you think you’re at risk for hepatitis, don’t wait; get screened.
By Lisa Miceli Feliciano