Hepatitis literally means “inflammation of the liver.” Hepatitis is a viral disease which targets the liver includes several strains, but the most common types of viral hepatitis in the United States are hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Both of these diseases can range from mild cases lasting only a few weeks to a lifelong or chronic condition.
Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus, which leads to liver inflammation. Most individuals who have hepatitis C are unaware that they have the disease until routine blood tests (possibly decades later) show that they have evidence of liver inflammation. Hepatitis C is widely accepted as the most common hepatitis virus causing chronic inflammation, and it is most often spread through contact with infected blood. Sharing needles is the most common way in which hepatitis C spreads. Common symptoms of hepatitis C include fatigue, fever, nausea, muscle/joint pain and yellowing of the skin and eyes.
The rate of hepatitis C has significantly decreased since 1992 when blood supply screening became more sophisticated. Before that time, hepatitis C was often spread through organ donations or blood transfusions.
Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and can cause both acute and chronic liver complications. Because blood screening technology has significantly reduced the number of new cases of hepatitis C, hepatitis B now has more new cases per year. In the most serious cases, hepatitis B can cause liver failure, liver cancer or cirrhosis (permanent scarring of the liver). If you contract hepatitis B as an adult, you are likely to make a full recovery. For infants and youths, hepatitis B has a greater risk of developing into a chronic condition.
After you have been infected for about three months, you may notice symptoms of hepatitis B, but most infants and children never show symptoms. If you do show symptoms, some of these include:
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakness and fatigue
- Dark urine
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes
How does Hepatitis B Spread?
Hepatitis B is transmitted through bodily fluids. The virus enters the liver, begins to multiply and cause inflammation. HBV can be transferred by:
- Mother to child—an expectant mother can transmit the virus to her child during delivery
- Accidental needle sticks—health care professionals are at risk if they come into contact with infected blood
- Sharing needles—HBV can be transmitted by syringes and needles during drug use
- Sexual contact—an infected person can transmit the virus to a partner through blood, saliva, semen or vaginal secretions
People who are at high risk for hepatitis B should be tested for HBV because the virus is highly communicable. According to the Center for Disease Control, two-thirds of people who are infected with HBV are unaware. Therefore, testing is essential for both diagnosis and preventing Hepatitis B from spreading. You are at increased risk for hepatitis B if you:
- Have unprotected sex with more than one partner
- Have unprotected sex with someone who is infected with HBV
- Share needles during IV drug use
- Have a job that exposes you to blood
- Share a home with someone infected with HBV
Tests to Diagnose Hepatitis B
If you have a high risk of coming into contact with HBV, your doctor may want to test you for HBV. A blood test can diagnose HBV. It can detect whether you have or have had HBV, you are immune to HBV or whether you can pass HBV to others.
Since hepatitis B often is not accompanied by symptoms, people who appear healthy may be tested for HBV. In addition to the high-risk individuals, these individuals should also be tested:
- Hemodialysis patients
- All pregnant women
- HIV-infected individuals
- Patients with abnormal liver laboratory results
- Patients who require immunosuppressive or cytotoxic therapy
Complications of Chronic Hepatitis B
Age of infection is a significant factor in whether hepatitis B develops into a chronic condition. If an infant is infected, he or she has a 90 percent chance of developing chronic hepatitis B. Serious complications from chronic hepatitis B include:
- Cirrhosis—Inflammation from hepatitis B can lead to scarring of the liver and the liver’s inability to function correctly
- Liver cancer—chronic hepatitis B is the most common cause of liver cancer
- Liver failure—when the liver shuts down, a liver transplant is imperative
- Kidney problems—hepatitis B can cause kidney failure. Children are more likely to recover from kidney issues than adults.
- Hepatitis D infection—if you have chronic hepatitis B, you are at risk of developing hepatitis D. Only those infected with HBV are susceptible to hepatitis D.
If you have chronic hepatitis B, your doctor may want to do a liver biopsy. Using a small needle your doctor can remove a tiny piece of liver tissue. A liver biopsy helps determine whether there is damage to the liver and choose the best method of treatment.
While acute hepatitis B may not need any treatment, chronic hepatitis B may require:
- Antiviral medications—this medication will slow the virus’ ability to damage the liver
- Liver transplant—for severe liver damage, you may need a transplant
- Monitoring–your doctor will regularly monitor you for signs and laboratory evidence of liver disease progression
Preventing Hepatitis B
The best prevention for HBV is vaccination. All infants should have a hepatitis B vaccination at birth because of the serious complications that result when HBV is contracted in infancy. Two or three additional doses are administered over a 6 to 18-month period. Adults can also be vaccinated with three doses over a six-month period.
There are also preventative treatments if you know you have been exposed to hepatitis B (such as those who work in the health care profession). Within 24 hours of exposure, a doctor can administer a preventative treatment.