Hepatitis literally means inflammation of ('itis') the liver ('hepa'). It's caused by viral infections, excessive use of alcohol, illegal drug use, or by a person's own immune response.
Before we talk more about Hepatitis, we're first going to take a quick look at the liver.
- The liver, which sits below the lungs (in between both lungs is the heart) and to the right of the stomach, is the largest organ in the human body (the largest organ of the human body is the skin). It's a meaty, reddish brown, rubbery feeling organ that weighs about 3 pounds when fully developed. The liver's main job is to filter blood, but it also does more than 400 other functions everyday.
The symptoms of hepatitis include:
- jaundice, which causes a yellowing of the skin and eyes
- abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
Hepatitis A is usually passed from one person to another through fecal contaminated food or water in places where the water supply is not sanitized. People who get hepatitis A generally get better and have no further complications. While infected some people can feel very ill from flu-like symptoms.
Hepatitis B is passed from one person to another when the blood or sexual fluids of an HBV infected person gets into another persons blood stream through openings in the skin (punctures, cuts, sores) or through the mucosal membranes (nose, genitals). Hepatitis B can live outside of the body for several days. It can become a chronic or lifelong infection and increase the risk for serious liver damage and liver cancer. Infants infected during childbirth are at the highest risk for developing chronic infection.
Hepatitis C (HCV) is passed from one person to another when the blood of an HCV infected person gets into another person’s blood stream through openings in the skin (punctures, tears, cuts, sores) or through a blood transfusion (but not in the United States since all blood is tested for Hepatitis C). Hepatitis C can live outside of the body for several days. Hepatitis C can become a chronic or lifelong infection and increases the risk for serious liver damage and liver cancer.
Hepatitis D is spread through contact with infected blood, and is contracted concurrently with Hepatitis B or develops in people who already have Hepatitis B.
Hepatitis E is spread through food or water contaminated by feces from an infected person, but is uncommon in the US.
How can I protect myself?
The good news is that there are vaccines available for Hepatitis A & B, and the Hepatitis B vaccine may offset the spread of Hepatitis D. In the United States, it is often required for you to have these vaccines before you enter high school or college, and it requires several shots over a period of 6 months. Your doctor will talk with you about any questions you have about the vaccine.
Regardless of vaccination, it is a good practice to avoid drinking tap water when travelling internationally -- it's not just viral hepatitis that you could get!!
Since Hepatitis B, C, and D are spread through blood and sexual contact, the best way to protect yourself is to use universal precautions. Always use gloves when you are in contact with any blood, always use condoms, DON'T share needles (for drug use or tattoos!), and DON'T share person hygiene items (like toothbrushes, razors, or nail clippers)!
What do I do if I think I have hepatitis?
The first thing you should do is get tested. Go to your doctor or find a free testing site. There are treatment options available, and you should talk with your doctor about what is best for you. Get informed about the options and protect your liver -- don't drink, exercise, eat well-balanced nutritious meals and stay positive!
**It is important to know that viral hepatitis may result from other sources not mentioned. These are called non-A-E hepatitis, the cause of which is still generally unknown.