Understanding Hepatitis A to C

All of us have heard of hepatitis but may have little knowledge of what exactly it is.  The word hepatitis comes from the Greek word hepar meaning liver and the Latin word itis meaning inflammation.  Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver brought about by drug use, alcohol use, sexual contact with an infected person, or certain medical conditions. 

There are actually six different type of hepatitis (A-G) but the majority of liver damage is caused by the three forms most of us are familiar with- hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. 

These three common forms of hepatitis can all have similar symptoms which include one or more of the following:

·         Fever

·         Fatigue

·         Loss of appetite

·         Nausea

·         Vomiting

·         Abdominal pain

·         Gray-colored bowel movements

·         Joint pain

·         jaundice

Hepatitis A

In 2013, there was an estimated 3,500 new infections of hepatitis A.  The cause of hepatitis A is from the hepatitis A virus (HAV).  The virus is found in the stool of HAV-infected people and is easily spread from one person to the next by putting something in the mouth, such as food, contaminated with the stool of a person with hepatitis A. This can happen when a person fails to wash their hands after using the restroom and then touches or prepares food. 

This form of hepatitis causes mild to moderate symptoms lasting several weeks and often there may be no symptoms.  The vast majority of people will have a complete recovery without treatment and will have lifelong immunity against it.

There is a vaccination for hepatitis A dramatically reducing the risk of an infection.  Children age 12 months and older, anyone traveling to foreign countries and people at high risk for infection with the virus are encouraged to be vaccinated.

Hepatitis B

In the UnitedStates about 12 million people are infected with hepatitis B and is estimated about 20,000 new cases occur each year.  The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is the cause of it and is found in blood, semen and other body fluids primarily contracted through birth to an infected mother, sexual contact with an infected person, sharing of contaminated needles or syringes, and with needlesticks or other sharp instrument injuries.  Any time you are exposed to blood you are at risk for transmission of hepatitis B. 

Symptoms are generally mild and people with the infection often remain asymptomatic until they develop cirrhosis or liver damage.  Most people with acute symptoms will recover with no lasting liver damage and acute illness is rarely fatal. 

Because of the hepatitis B vaccine this has significantly reduced infections of it in the United States.  In addition, all blood donations are screened and testing of high-risk people has helped to dramatically keep transmission of it low.   

Hepatitis C

This form of hepatitis is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and is estimated about 3.2 million people in the U.S. have it.  The virus is spread when a person comes in contact with blood where the virus is found of an infected person.  This usually happens by sharing of contaminated needles, syringes, or other injection drug equipment.   Sex transmission is rare but having multiple partners can increase the risk of infection.

Hepatitis C is considered a chronic condition and causes about 17,000 death annually.   It can take years for people with chronic hepatitis C to show symptoms and by that time, liver damage can be severe.  The majority of liver transplants in the U.S. are due to hepatitis C infection.   Infection of hepatitis C can also increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease along with causing damage to other organs.