The ABCs of Hepatitis: What You Need to Know

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Hepatitis, which means inflammation of the liver, is most commonly caused by infections from the viruses known as Hepatitis A, B, and C. Learn the differences among the three, the symptoms to look for, and most importantly, how you can you protect yourself and your family.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a virus spread from person to person, usually through contaminated food and water. It causes an acute illness, meaning the body is able to remove the infection and recover.

Symptoms of Hepatitis A include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. People who are infected can also have a yellow coloring to the skin called jaundice, and may have dark urine. These symptoms usually go away within 2 months, but can last up to 6 months.

Prevention: Good hygiene and sanitation practices can help stop Hepatitis A from being spread, but the best way to prevent the infection is getting vaccinated. Children are now routinely vaccinated at 1 year of age, and certain adults who have not been vaccinated before should also receive it.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a virus usually spread through contact with infected blood. It can be spread by sharing razors, needles, and toothbrushes, and through sex. A baby can also become infected during childbirth if her mother has the infection.

Symptoms: Many adults who become infected with Hepatitis B will have acute symptoms similar to those of Hepatitis A, but most young children will have few or no symptoms. Most adults will remove the virus after the acute infection, but 90% of infants and 25-50% of 1-5 year olds will have chronic infections, where the virus continues to grow in the liver.

It is estimated that 1.2 million Americans have chronic Hepatitis B, and approximately 15-25% of these people will develop serious liver damage, including liver cancer, if they do not receive treatment. Unfortunately the infection is often “silent,” without obvious symptoms until serious damage has occurred after many years.

Prevention: Like Hepatitis A, the best way to prevent infection is through vaccination, and all children are now routinely vaccinated. The vaccine is also recommended for adults who are at an increased risk for infection and are not immunized, such as individuals who receive dialysis and certain healthcare workers.

Who Should Get Tested?

Because Hepatitis B can be a chronic infection with serious consequences, the CDC recommends you should get checked for the infection by your doctor if you:

  • Were born in a country where Hepatitis B is common, such as Asian and Pacific Islanders.
  • Were born in the US and were not vaccinated at birth, and have at least one parent born in a country with high Hepatitis B rates.
  • Live with someone who has Hepatitis B.
  • View the complete list of CDC recommendations here.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is another virus that infects the liver, and it is transmitted in the same ways as Hepatitis B.

Unlike Hepatitis B, most individuals who are exposed to Hepatitis C remain chronically infected after acute symptoms subside. This persistent infection causes serious damage to the liver, and is a leading cause of liver cancer and the leading cause of liver transplants.

Who Should Get Tested?

It is estimated that 3.2 million Americans have chronic Hepatitis C, and 75% of those people were born in the “baby boomer” generation. For this reason the CDC recommends everyone born from 1945-1965 be screened for Hepatitis C. In addition, you should be tested if you:

  • Received blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992.
  • Used intravenous drugs.
  • Had long-term dialysis.
  • Have HIV.
  • View the complete list of CDC recommendations here.

At this time there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C, but the infection can be treated quite effectively. In the past, some people with Hepatitis C were not candidates for treatment or could not tolerate it due to side-effects. Now, highly effective treatments with minimal side-effects are available. If you know you are infected with Hepatitis C or believe you may be at risk, talk to your doctor.

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Matthew D. Torres, MD

Matthew D. Torres, MD, is a family physician with LG Health Physicians Quentin Family Medicine in Lebanon County. Dr. Torres’ areas of special interest include wellness and integrative medicine, nutrition, and mind-body medicine.

Education: Medical School—Penn State College of Medicine; Internship and Residency—Lancaster General Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program.

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