Viral hepatitis is a common contagious disease caused by several viruses that attack the liver. Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver, usually producing swelling and tenderness and sometimes permanent damage to the liver. There are three types of the disease.
- Hepatitis A is caused by fecal contamination of food and water. Although symptoms similar to the flu and fatigue may occur, the disease is rarely life threatening.
- Hepatitis B is one of the most serious forms of hepatitis with over 300,000 new acute cases each year and an estimated one million carriers in the United States. This disease is more prevalent and infectious than AIDS, and may lead to scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis, and cancer of the liver.
- Hepatitis C, formerly called non-A, non-B hepatitis, affects approximately 170,000 Americans each year. It may develop into a chronic form in approximately 50% of patients.
Hepatitis B and C can be transmitted through infected blood, blood products and needles. However, all blood is now tested for the presence of these viruses. Health care workers, laboratory technicians, dentists and other individuals who may come in contact with infected blood, instruments or needles, are at risk for acquiring hepatitis B and C.
Hepatitis C is rarely spread sexually, from an infected mother to her newborn, or to other members of the household. There is no vaccine for this form of the disease.
Hepatitis B is frequently spread through sexual contact and at birth from mother to baby. Vaccination is recommended for all newborns, infants, and sexually active teenagers. Individuals living in the same household with someone who is a carrier or has chronic active hepatitis B are at risk and should ask their physician about being vaccinated.
In a large percentage of cases of both hepatitis B and C, we do not know how the infection is acquired.
Hepatitis B and C are major health problems. Specific blood tests for both hepatitis B and C are necessary to help physicians evaluate whether treatment is indicated and to identify precautions to prevent the spread to others.
Most people have no symptoms and feel quite healthy. Some individuals will develop fatigue, mild fever, muscle and joint aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort and changes in the color of urine and stools.
There are specific tests to identify hepatitis B and C. Blood banks screen all donated blood for these viruses and you may be notified that you have tested positive.
If you think you have been infected or are at risk, talk with your physician. He or she can answer your questions and address your concerns about these serious diseases.
The American Liver Foundation is the only national voluntary health organization dedicated to fighting all liver diseases through research, education, and support groups.
Research has recently opened up exciting new paths for investigation, but much more remains to be done to find cures for more than 100 different liver diseases.