What is Hepatitis?
A common question here at Hunterdon Gastroenterology asked by patients is, “what exactly is Hepatitis?” Simply stated, it is an inflammation of the liver. The condition can improve without treatment, or it can progress to scarring (cirrhosis) or liver cancer. These viruses are the most common cause of hepatitis in the world but infections, toxic substances (e.g. alcohol, certain drugs), and autoimmune diseases can also be causes.
There are 5 main viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. These 5 types are of greatest concern because of the burden of illness and death they can cause and the potential for outbreaks and epidemic spread. Types B and C lead to chronic disease in hundreds of millions of people and, together, are the most common cause of liver cirrhosis and cancer.
Millions of Americans, from all walks of life, are living with viral hepatitis and most don’t even know they have the virus. Take a look at the stats:
- 3.5 million people are estimated to be living with hepatitis C in the United States. The actual number may be as high as 4.7 million or as low as 2.5 million.1
- 850,000 people in the U.S. are estimated to be living with hepatitis B. The actual number may be as high as 2.2 million or as low as 730,000.2
- More than half of persons living with viral hepatitis do not know that they have the virus. Thus, they are at risk for life threatening liver disease and cancer and unknowingly transmitting the virus to others.
- 67% of persons living with hepatitis B infection do not know they have the virus.
- 51% of persons living with hepatitis C infection do not know they have the virus.
- Three out of four people living with hepatitis C infection are baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965.
- Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the racial/ethnic group that is most heavily affected by hepatitis B virus. Asians and Pacific Islanders represent about 5% of the U.S. population, but they represent about half of all persons living with hepatitis B. As a result, 1 in 12 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are living with hepatitis B.
- Hepatitis C infections are increasing in the United States.
What are the differences in the 5 types of hepatitis?
Hepatitis A virus (HAV) is a type of food poisoning. It is present in the feces of infected persons and is most often transmitted through consumption of contaminated water or food. Certain sex practices can also spread HAV. Infections are in many cases mild, with most people making a full recovery and remaining immune from further HAV infections. However, HAV infections can also be severe and life threatening. Most people in areas of the world with poor sanitation have been infected with this virus. Safe and effective vaccines are available to prevent HAV.
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is transmitted through exposure to infected blood and other body fluids. HBV can be transmitted from infected mothers to infants at the time of birth or from family member to infant in early childhood. Transmission may also occur through transfusions of HBV-contaminated blood and blood products, contaminated injections during medical procedures, and through injection drug use. HBV poses a risk to healthcare workers who sustain accidental needle stick injuries while caring for infected-HBV patients. Safe and effective vaccines are available to prevent HBV.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is mostly transmitted through exposure to infected blood. This may happen through transfusions of HCV-contaminated blood and blood products and through injection drug use. Sexual transmission is also possible but is much less common. There is no vaccine for HCV but there is treatment.
Hepatitis D virus (HDV) infections occur only in those who are infected with HBV. The dual infection of HDV and HBV can result in a more serious disease and worse outcome. Hepatitis B vaccines provide protection from HDV infection.
Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is mostly transmitted through consumption of contaminated water or food. HEV is a common cause of hepatitis outbreaks in developing parts of the world and is also found in developed countries. Safe and effective vaccines to prevent HEV infection have been developed but are not widely available.
Is it curable?
There’s currently no cure for Hepatitis A, but it normally gets better on its own within a couple of months. Doctors can monitor your condition with blood tests and patients are advised to drink plenty of liquids and get a lot of rest. Avoiding alcohol is important to prevent additional strain on the liver.
Hepatitis B is a liver infection caused by a virus. It can be serious and there’s no cure, but the good news is it’s easy to prevent. You can protect yourself by getting vaccinated and having safer sex.
Recently new, effective drugs have been approved for the treatment and cure of Hepatitis C. Treatment can be as short as 8-12 weeks. Everyone born between 1945-1965 should be tested for HCV.
Hepatitis D is extremely rare in the United States. There’s currently no cure or vaccine for it, but it can be prevented by preventing hepatitis B. Treatment may also help prevent liver failure when the condition is detected early.
Hepatitis E is rarely found in the U.S. For patients who have severe, acute illness treatment with medication resulted in improved liver function in some small studies. If hepatitis E is suspected and your immune system is not suppressed, you may not need medications. A doctor may advise you to rest, drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol, and practice good hygiene until the infection subsides.
If you have concerns about Hepatitis, the doctors at Hunterdon Gastroenterology Associates are ready with answers! Please give our office a call at 908-483-4000.