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Viral hepatitis: What you need to know

Posted May 08, 2022 by Edward Pankey, M.D.

3-d computer model of a liver in the body

The liver is one of the largest and busiest organs in the body. Your liver spends its days processing nutrients, filtering blood and fighting infection, among other important jobs.

That’s why the hepatitis virus, which infects the liver, can be a major threat to this vital organ. When your liver is inflamed or damaged, it cannot function correctly.

The most common hepatitis viruses in the United States are hepatitis A, B and C. These viruses cause liver infections and while they each can cause similar symptoms, they are spread in different ways and affect the liver differently.

Hepatitis outbreaks have increased in recent decades across the country, and because not everyone will develop symptoms, people may unknowingly spread the virus. While most people fully recover from a hepatitis A infection, hepatitis B and C are the leading cause of liver cancer in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Summa Health discusses common hepatitis strains, symptoms, treatment options and the best ways to prevent infection to protect you and your family from this preventable disease.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection that can cause people to become sick for up to several months. The good news is most people fully recover and don’t have lasting liver damage. However in rare cases, the elderly or those with other serious health conditions, can experience liver failure and even death.

Hepatitis A is typically spread through contaminated food or water that contains microscopic amounts of stool from someone who’s infected. For example, it can be spread through unwashed produce or raw shellfish with contaminated water.

Hepatitis B

Most people who contract hepatitis B have an acute liver infection where they are sick for a couple of weeks. But for a small percentage of patients, it progresses into a serious, chronic illness. Over time, it can cause serious health problems, such as liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer and even death.

Unlike hepatitis A, hepatitis B is primarily spread through bodily fluid, such as an infected mother spreads it to her baby during childbirth, sexual intercourse with an infected partner, sharing dirty drug needles, razors or other equipment that can contain bodily fluid.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is the most common cause of a liver infection in this country and it can range from a mild illness that lasts a few weeks to a serious, chronic condition. Unfortunately, most patients, up to 85 percent, develop a chronic infection, resulting in long-term health problems, such as liver failure, cirrhosis, liver cancer and even death.

Hepatitis C is spread when blood of an infected person enters another person’s body. Being in direct contact with infected blood, such as sharing dirty drug needles, childbirth, unregulated tattoos or body piercings that use contaminated equipment and other poor infection control are common ways hepatitis C is spread.

Viral hepatitis symptoms

Not everyone will develop symptoms, so many people don’t even know they are infected. But if they do, symptoms for an acute infection of viral hepatitis typically develop several weeks to months after infection and can include:

  • Yellow skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Upset stomach or loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Dark urine and light-colored stool
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain

Diagnosis and treatment for viral hepatitis

Your doctor can determine if you have an infection or ever had an infection by testing for antibodies through a blood test.

There is no medicine available to treat viral hepatitis acute infections. Instead, the best treatment is rest, adequate nutrition and fluids. People with severe infections will require hospitalization and possibly antiviral drugs.

If a hepatitis A infection is diagnosed early enough, doctors may be able to stop the infection with a dose of the hepatitis A vaccine or hepatitis A immune globulin, which are antibodies prepared from human plasma.

If a hepatitis B or C infection becomes chronic, there are several treatments available.

Preventing viral hepatitis

The best protection against viral hepatitis is vaccination, practicing good hygiene and avoiding risky behaviors.

In the United States, there are vaccines available for hepatitis A and B. The CDC recommends all children up to age 18 and adults at risk for viral hepatitis receive these multiple-dose vaccines.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. And while you can’t get reinfected with hepatitis A and B, you can get a hepatitis C infection again.

If you think you’ve been exposed or want to be tested for viral hepatitis, contact your primary care physician as soon as possible. Next steps can be recommended based on your age and overall health to limit further damage to your liver and maybe even repair some of it.

Edward A Pankey, MD

Edward A Pankey, MD

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