Hepatitis literally means inflammation of the liver (hepat-= liver; “itis”=inflammation). The liver is a hard-working, usually silent, warrior. The liver controls many body functions, processes proteins and fats, and stores glycogen. When it gets infected and inflamed, the complications come in a rainbow of colors and can be deadly. You have only one liver and you can’t live without it.
The most common types of hepatitis are A, B, and C. Each of these affects the liver, but they are separate viruses. Each has its unique characteristics.
Hepatitis A typically lasts a few weeks and comes from ingesting the hepatitis A virus. Have you noticed signs in restaurant bathrooms “Employee Must Wash Hands”? That is because the virus comes from stool, so an unwashed hand can carry the germ right to the food and into your body. It can make you mighty sick, but healthy people usually recover within a month.
Hepatitis A symptoms are colorful because the infected liver cannot process hemoglobin and bilirubin well. Your skin and eyes turn yellow, urine gets dark, stools come out white, and the nausea makes you feel green. Other symptoms are fever, fatigue and no appetite. Symptoms occur two to six weeks after exposure.
Hepatitis B comes through blood and body secretions. Intimacy, dirty injections, and injuries lead the list of pathways. Hepatitis B can also be transmitted from mother to baby during birth, which is why babies are given the hepatitis B vaccine in their first days.
Half of infected adults have no hepatitis B symptoms. Some have symptoms similar to the hepatitis A symptoms, six weeks or six months after exposure. Unlike hepatitis A, hepatitis B infection can become chronic, causing chronic inflammation of the liver, cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease, liver cancer and death.
You can be vaccinated for both hepatitis A and B, with separate or combined immunizations. We still do not have a vaccine for hepatitis C. The good news is that hepatitis B vaccinations have become routine for children since 1991, so young adults and children are likely to be protected. Health workers who are frequently exposed to blood are routinely offered the hepatitis B vaccine. With the broad use of the vaccine, hepatitis B infections have declined more than 80 percent. But many adults remain unimmunized and at risk.
Hepatitis C is also spread by blood. It is the most common chronic infection spread by blood in the United States. Hepatitis C can cause a mild infection that lasts only a few weeks, but more commonly, it damages the liver and causes lifelong illness. Hepatitis C can go undetected for years. Sixty to 70 percent of persons with new hepatitis C infections have no symptoms or have mild symptoms. As many as 85 percent of those infected with hepatitis C can develop chronic liver disease. Hepatitis C can be detected by a blood test. Treatment with interferon and ribavirin, with ongoing monitoring, can help.
So how do you protect yourself? Being as healthy as possible gives you the best fighting chance against any infection. Routine checkups and blood tests can detect an infection you don’t know you have. Assess your hepatitis risk at cdc.gov/hepatitis/riskassessment
Maitland resident Nancy Rudner Lugo is a nurse practitioner and president of Health Action, offering workplace health consulting and nurse coaching. Visit www.healthaction.biz