Hepatitis A, B, and C: Why should you care?
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is a generic word for any type of inflammation of the liver. While some types of hepatitis are treatable or resolve on their own others can progress to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) or liver cancer. The most common cause of hepatitis is from hepatitis viruses, though other infections, autoimmune diseases and toxic substances (such as drugs, alcohol, medications, or toxins) can also cause hepatitis.
This article focuses on the most common hepatitis viruses: Hepatitis A, B, and C.
Hepatitis A is an infectious disease of the liver caused by the Hepatitis A Virus (HAV).
Currently, most American children are vaccinated against it at an early age, however older generations may not be vaccinated or may have had the illness. Symptoms of hepatitis A typically last eight weeks and may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, fever, and abdominal pain but it can also have no symptoms at all. Sometimes it can lead to much more dangerous consequences like liver failure.
Hepatitis A is mostly spread by food, but can also be spread by close personal contact, sharing needles, and sexual activity.
Hepatitis B is an infectious disease caused by the Hepatitis B Virus (HBV). It can cause both sudden (acute) and chronic, long-lasting infections. Those who are suddenly infected with the virus may experience no symptoms or may develop a rapid onset of sickness with vomiting, yellowish skin, tiredness, dark urine and abdominal pain lasting a few weeks.
Hepatitis B is spread when blood, semen or other bodily fluids are shared. It can be spread through sexual activity, sharing needles, from a pregnant mother to her fetus inside the womb, or sharing toothbrushes or razors.
After the acute (initial) illness resolves, especially in young children, it may convert to a chronic viral infection. Most of those with chronic disease have no symptoms; however, cirrhosis (scarring) and liver cancer may eventually develop.
Is chronic Hepatitis B common?
Chronic Hepatitis B isn’t too common in the United States where we have had testing and vaccination programs in place. However in other countries it is more common and is often acquired by babies from their mothers - this is called vertical transmission.
Hepatitis B acquired through vertical transmission is more likely to convert into a chronic state so testing is important in that case. Areas in the world where Hepatitis B is still more common include Sub Saharan Africa, parts of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, parts of South America and Asia.
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease caused by the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV). It can also cause both acute and chronic infections. Like the other viral hepatitis syndromes some infected people have no symptoms while others will experience fever, tiredness, vomiting, yellowish skin, tiredness, dark urine and abdominal pain.
Hepatitis C is spread through the blood most commonly through sharing needles but can also be spread from a pregnant mother to her baby or sexually.
Why is it important to screen for Hepatitis C?
Although you may not notice any symptoms of hepatitis C, if you have it and your body isn't able to kill all of the virus it is possible that it could flare up or that it could cause long term damage to your liver which could lead to liver cancer.
Do I need to tell sexual partners about hepatitis C?
Yes, although the risk of spreading it through sexual contact is much lower than the risk of IV drug use, it is possible, especially if your partner has a lowered immune system - such as by having HIV.
The good news is that in addition to the very low transmission rate that there is now a cure if you do test positive.