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Hepatitis: An Overview 
 
by Valencia P. Higuera October 10, 2005

Millions of people living within the United States are infected with the hepatitis virus. Unfortunately, a large percentage of those infected are unaware of their condition. Hepatitis is a virus that can remain undetected in the body for several years. Even when victims experience mild signs, they put off having their symptoms examined by a physician. In fact, it is estimated that more than half of all victims discover they have the hepatitis virus by accident. In other words, routine blood tests during annual physicals present indicators of a potential problem, and leads doctors to investigate further. There are five different types of hepatitis. The three common types of hepatitis are A, B, and C.

What is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a liver infection that is caused by the hepatitis A virus. This type of hepatitis is the most common. In addition, this type of hepatitis is also the mildest form. Those who suffer from liver infections due to hepatitis A generally recover without experiencing any permanent liver damage.

The hepatitis A virus is located in the stool of an infected person. With this being said, many may wonder how a person becomes infected? Since humans do not ordinarily come in contact with the fecal particles of others, it appears that hepatitis A would be impossible to transmit to others. No one wants to think about encountering another person’s stool. However, because many people practice poor hygiene habits, we are more likely to encounter fecal matter from a hepatitis A infected person, than we are to become infected with another form of hepatitis. This is a frightening thought – but true. A person develops hepatitis A when they digest food that contains fecal particles from an infected person. How does this happen?

Of course, no person will knowingly digest contaminated food. However, there are millions of new cases of hepatitis A each year in this country. Most that are diagnosed with the virus hold restaurants responsible. Sadly, there have been incidents when several people diagnosed with the virus ate food at the same restaurant. When this occurs, a restaurant likely employs an infected person. Good hygiene involves washing our hands thoroughly before handling food. However, some people practice terrible hygiene. This includes refusing to cleanse their hands after urinating or defecating. After a bowel movement, fecal particles may pass onto our hands. If our hands are not washed, feces can transmit to anything we touch – including food. Hepatitis A may also occur by eating raw shellfish.

Symptoms of Hepatitis A Symptoms of hepatitis A do not always appear immediately. There have been cases when a person became ill up to seven weeks after being infected. When this occurs, it is more difficult to pinpoint the root. On average, most begin to show signs of infection within a month. Symptoms of hepatitis A include:

Fatigue

Fever Sore muscles

Headaches

Pain on right side of abdomen

Loss of appetite

Jaundice

Hepatitis A is a tricky illness. Generally, symptoms do not appear until the final stages of the illness. During this time, the chances of infecting others with the illness are slim. The illness is more contagious during the early stages, when an infected person is unaware that they are ill.

What is Hepatitis B?

Approximately 1.2 million Americans are infected with Hepatitis B. Similar to hepatitis A, type B is a liver infection caused the hepatitis B virus. This form of hepatitis is more serious. If left untreated, type B can cause serious and permanent liver damage. Individuals infected with hepatitis B have either an acute or a chronic form of the illness. Acute infections are generally short term and may not require medical attention. In fact, many who are infected with an acute infection are unaware of their condition. Symptoms may never present themselves. In addition, mild symptoms typically disappear within three weeks. Unlike other illnesses, once a person is infected and recovers from hepatitis B, they are unable to become infected for a second time. Our bodies will produce antibodies to the virus which prevent future infections.

Chronic hepatitis B is a more serious condition. These infections remain in the body for at least six months. During this period, a person is contagious. This sort of infection requires treatment. Those who do not receive treatment for chronic hepatitis B are placed at great risk for developing cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.

Causes of Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is caused by certain medications and alcohol abuse. However, this virus is also transmitted through body fluids. In fact, hepatitis B is considered a sexually transmitted disease. Common causes of hepatitis B include:

Sexual contact (intercourse, anal sex, oral sex)

Sharing needles with an infected person (encountering an infected person’s blood)

Childbirth (mothers infected may transmit the virus to their unborn child)

Symptoms of Chronic Hepatitis B

Jaundice

Fatigue

Weakness

Loss of appetite

Nausea

Joint pain

Muscle pain

Skin rash

Vomiting

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is the most serious form of hepatitis. This type of hepatitis almost always leads to permanent liver damage. The reason is because many who have hepatitis C are not diagnosed with the condition early. This infection presents no symptoms in the initial stage. By the time a person begins to feel ill, the infection has advanced and begun to cause irreversible liver damage.

Causes of Hepatitis C Similar to hepatitis B, hepatitis C is a sexually transmitted disease. In order to become infected with this form of hepatitis, a person must encounter the blood or body fluid of an infected person. Thus, unclean needles used for drug injections, tattoos, and ear piercings place a person at great risk for being infected with hepatitis C. Although rare, it is possible for a mother to pass the infection to her newborn child. The exact cause of hepatitis C is relatively new. Up until the early 1990’s, many became infected as the result of blood transfusions. However, because of enhanced blood screening devices, the chance of becoming infected by a blood donor have decreased. Those infected generally show signs of the illness rather quickly. In most cases, symptoms appear within two weeks of becoming infected.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

In the beginning, those infected with hepatitis C may have no symptoms. Mild symptoms that may occur include the usual such as jaundice, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, and sore muscles. However, once the infection advances, those infected may notice a worsening of their overall health. Symptoms of chronic hepatitis C include:

Extreme tiredness

Abdominal pain

Skin rash

Itchy skin

Diagnosing Hepatitis A, B, and C

Routine blood tests are early indicators of a problem. These tests include a liver function test. Hepatitis causes inflammation of the liver. When this occurs, an infected person will likely experience elevated liver enzymes. Our livers are comprised of healthy cells. When these cells are damaged, they release enzymes into the bloodstream. When elevated enzymes are detected on a blood test, this indicates a liver problem. To investigate further, physicians will recommend a hepatitis test. These tests are intended to confirm whether a patient has a particular infection. If the tests are positive, a patient will have to undergo a CAT scan and biopsy to determine the stage of infection.

Treatment Options Acute cases of hepatitis generally do not require medication. These often do not advance to chronic level, and go away without treatment. However, doctors may choose to closely monitor a patient with acute hepatitis. Chronic hepatitis does require treatment. There are many available drugs that are intended to treat and relieve symptoms of hepatitis. The primary purpose of drugs is to promote healthy liver function, and prevent long-term or permanent liver damage.


 




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