It’s ignored, stigmatized, and misunderstood, but it kills 1.5 million people every year, as many as HIV/AIDS. It’s the leading cause of liver cancer. Hepatitis is a serious inflammation of the liver, and it doesn’t play favorites. It can strike anyone, so it’s worth knowing what it is and how you might help prevent it.
Types of Hepatitis
Hepatitis A virus (HAV) is highly contagious. It spreads through food or water contaminated with fecal matter, or from direct contact with an infected person. It causes acute (short-term) infection, but doesn’t become chronic (long-term). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are about 1.4 million cases of HAV every year.
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is transmitted through contact with the blood or other body fluids of a person who is infected. The disease can be acute, but often becomes chronic. Without treatment, about 25 percent of people with HBV develop serious liver problems, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. The CDC estimates that there are about 240 million people around the world living with chronic HBV. It is especially common in Asia and Africa.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) spreads through contact with blood, usually from sharing of needles, accidental needle sticks, or personal items like razors that may have come into contact with blood. The virus can be acute or cause chronic liver disease. According to the CDC, there are about 130-150 million people around the world with chronic HCV.
Hepatitis D virus (HDV) spreads through contact with infected blood, but you can only get it if you already have HBV. It is rare in the United States.
Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is transmitted via fecal matter, usually through contaminated water. It develops as an acute infection, but doesn’t progress to a chronic form. HEV is rare in the United States, but common in countries that have poor sanitation.
Symptoms of Hepatitis
- stomach pain
- dark-colored urine, pale stools
- nausea, vomiting
- loss of appetite
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
Symptoms aren’t always obvious. You can have the infection for years without ever feeling sick. During that time, it’s possible to transmit the infection to others. In some people, hepatitis clears up without treatment. For others, current treatments can help slow down or prevent damage to the liver. If you think you may have been exposed to hepatitis, talk to your doctor about getting a blood test.
Get vaccinated. Vaccinations for HAV and HBV are recommended for all children and for adults at increased risk of infection. Currently, there are no vaccines for HCV, HDV, or HEV.
Know before you go. Before traveling internationally, ask your doctor if you need vaccinations. You can learn more about what immunizations you may need by visiting the CDC Traveler’s Health page.
Practice good hygiene. Always wash your hands after you use the bathroom and before preparing or eating food. Proper hand washing technique means using soap and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. If you don’t have access to soap and clean water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
Be cautious. In certain regions of the world, tap water should be avoided. Call the CDC at 877-FYI-TRIP for more information. Never share needles or personal items like razors and nail clippers.
Use protection. Latex condoms may lower risk of transmission of some types of hepatitis.
Think again about viral hepatitis. It won’t be ignored.
Images: World Hepatitis Alliance