What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver and is caused by viral infections that affect the liver.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. The condition can be self-limiting or can progress to fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis, or liver cancer. Hepatitis viruses are the most common cause of hepatitis in the world but other infections, toxic substances (e.g. alcohol, certain drugs), and autoimmune diseases can also cause hepatitis.
What are the different types of hepatitis viruses?
Scientists have identified 5 unique hepatitis viruses, identified by the letters A, B, C, D, and E. While all cause liver disease, they vary in important ways.
Hepatitis A virus (HAV) is present in the feces of infected persons and is most often transmitted through the 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 infective blood, semen, and other body fluids. HBV can be transmitted from infected mothers to infants at the time of birth or from family members to infants 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 also 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 infective blood. This may happen through transfusions of HCV-contaminated blood and blood products, contaminated injections during medical procedures, and through injection drug use. Sexual transmission is also possible but is much less common. There is no vaccine for HCV.
Hepatitis D virus (HDV) infections occur only in those who are infected with HBV. The dual infection of HDV and HBV can result in more serious disease and worse outcome. Hepatitis B vaccines protect from HDV infection.
Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is mostly transmitted through the consumption of contaminated water or food. HEV is a common cause of hepatitis outbreaks in developing parts of the world and is increasingly recognized as an important cause of disease in developed countries. Safe and effective vaccines to prevent HEV infection have been developed but are not widely available.
Causes of Nonviral Hepatitis
Hepatitis can be caused by liver damage from excessive alcohol consumption. This is sometimes referred to as alcoholic hepatitis. The alcohol causes the liver to swell and become inflamed. Other toxic causes include the overuse of medication or exposure to poisons.
The immune system may mistake the liver as a harmful object and begin to attack it, hindering liver function.
Common Symptoms of Hepatitis
If you have forms of hepatitis that are usually chronic (hepatitis B and C), you may not have symptoms in the beginning. Symptoms may not occur until liver damage occurs.
Signs and symptoms of acute hepatitis appear quickly. They include:
- flu-like symptoms
- dark urine
- pale stool
- abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- yellow skin and eyes, which may be signs of jaundice
Since chronic hepatitis develops slowly, these signs and symptoms may be too subtle to notice.
Tips to Prevent Hepatitis
Practicing good hygiene is one key way to avoid contracting hepatitis. If you’re traveling to a developing country, you should avoid:
- drinking local water
- raw fruit and vegetables
Hepatitis contracted through contaminated blood can be prevented by:
- not sharing drug needles
- not sharing razors
- not using someone else’s toothbrush
- not touching spilled blood
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