May is Hepatitis Awareness Month in the United States! This is a time to raise awareness of viral hepatitis and encourage our communities to get tested.
There are several types of hepatitis, all of which affect the liver. Most have treatments available, though they do not all have vaccines or cures.
Hepatitis A: This is a vaccine-preventable, contagious disease of the liver transmitted by blood or stool. Those who contract hepatitis A may feel sick for a few weeks to several months, but usually recover completely and do not have lasting liver damage. (1)
The best way to prevent Hepatitis A is to get vaccinated, and most children in the U.S. are vaccinated around age 12-23 months. The vaccine has been shown to last at least 20 years. (2)
Hepatitis B: This is a liver disease that can be transmitted when blood, semen, or another body fluid from a person infected with the virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Some who become infected, especially if contracted as a child, can go on to develop a chronic or lifelong infection. These situations can lead to serious liver conditions such as cirrhosis or liver cancer. (3)
Hepatitis B is preventable with a vaccine. In some instances, hepatitis B can be passed from an infected woman to her baby at birth if the baby does not receive the vaccine, which is why all infants are recommended to get vaccinated. Because acute infections tend to clear on their own, there is no medication available to treat hepatitis B. During a short-term infection, doctors will usually recommend rest, adequate nutrition, and fluids. (4)
Hepatitis C: This is a contagious liver disease which develops into a chronic, or lifelong, infection in over 50% of cases. It is spread via blood. Today, most cases in the U.S. are caused by sharing of needles and other injection drug equipment. Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can lead to serious health issues including liver disease, liver failure, and even liver cancer. (5)
There is no vaccine currently available for hepatitis C, but treatment for chronic infections has improved over the years and includes 8-12 weeks of oral therapy (pills taken by mouth). Generally, those with hepatitis C do not have symptoms, so testing is the only way to know if one is infected. The CDC now recommends all adults and pregnant women get tested. (6)
There are two additional types of hepatitis, D and E, that are far less common. Hepatitis D only occurs in those who are already infected with the hepatitis B virus and is spread by blood or bodily fluids. (7) Hepatitis E is transmitted by fecal matter, but is rare in the United States. (8)
Most acute hepatitis infections have few to no symptoms. If someone were to develop symptoms, some common signs of a hepatitis infection include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, diarrhea, clay-colored stools, joint pain, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes). In chronic infections, many people will develop chronic liver disease slowly, without signs or symptoms, over several decades. It is often not recognized until people are screened for blood donation or from an abnormal blood test during a routine examination. (9)
In the case of an advanced infection, many will develop cirrhosis, the first sign of liver disease. Some symptoms to look out for include easy bruising or bleeding, water build up in the legs or abdomen, jaundice, itchy skin, increased sensitivity to current medications and its side effects, insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes, and problems with concentration, memory, sleeping or other mental functions. Should you experience these symptoms and believe you may be at risk for advanced liver disease, please contact your primary care provider.
Caring Communities offers Hepatitis C testing for those who may have been exposed through current or past drug use. We also offer link-to-care services for those who test positive. These services help participants get timely, essential, and appropriate medical services in order to improve and maintain their health. (Please note, our HCV testing service is currently on hold due to the on-going COVID-19 outbreak.)