The month of May has been chosen as Hepatitis Awareness Month, with May 19 being National Hepatitis Testing Day. Hepatitis comes in many different variations, the most common being Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C. All three are viruses and can affect an individual’s liver.
While all three are named “Hepatitis” and they can affect your liver, they are all very different. Hepatitis A, which you may have heard about in the news recently, is contracted through the fecal-oral route. This means that a person who is infected with Hepatitis A ingested the virus, which is shed in feces. This can be through close personal contact or through contaminated food. A person who is infected with Hepatitis A can shed the virus in their stool for up to two weeks before they actually start to develop symptoms. Symptoms can include fever, nausea, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, clay colored stool, and jaundice and typically last one to two weeks. Hepatitis A does not cause chronic liver disease and once you have been infected with Hepatitis A, you have lifelong protection against the disease. Proper handwashing and proper food handling can help prevent the spread of the virus. There is also a vaccine available for Hepatitis A.
Next on our list is the Hepatitis B Virus (HBV). One way in which HBV differs from Hepatitis A, is that it is a bloodborne pathogen. The highest levels of the virus are found in blood but can also be found in other body fluids. This means that HBV can be transmitted through blood, sexual contact, and from mother to fetus. This virus can survive outside of the body for up to a week and can still cause infection. During the acute stages of the infection, approximately 90 days after being exposed to the virus, an individual may experience similar symptoms to that of Hepatitis A (fever, fatigue, anorexia, malaise, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay-colored stools, and jaundice). If the person’s body does not fight off the virus during the acute illness, it can develop into a chronic infection in which most people do not experience any symptoms until the onset of cirrhosis or liver disease. Fortunately, there is also a vaccine available for Hepatitis B. Most people born after 1991 have received this vaccine, which has led to a significant decline in the number of cases.
Our last topic for discussion is the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV). Of the three we have discussed today, HCV is the most common in our area. Like Hepatitis B, HCV is a bloodborne pathogen. Unlike Hepatitis B, HCV is not typically spread through sexual contact, though it may sometimes occur. The virus can sometimes be transmitted from mother to fetus, as well. The main route of infection with HCV that is seen today is through injection drug use. This happens when a person who is infected with HCV shares needles or other contaminated drug paraphernalia with those who are not infected. HCV has both an acute and chronic stage, but there are not usually symptoms associated with either stage unless cirrhosis develops later in the chronic stages of infection. Although there is not a vaccine available for HCV, there are treatments for the most common types of HCV. CDC recommends that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested at least once. Baby boomers are considered to be five times more likely to have HCV than other adults.
If you are worried that you may have been exposed to any of the Hepatitis viruses, contact your health care provider. As mentioned above, there are vaccines available for both Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B which can help prevent the spread of disease. More information, as well as a five minute online hepatitis risk assessment, can be found at CDC.gov/hepatitis.
Mikie Strite is a regional epidemiologist.