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What Is Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C?

August 6, 2018

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Hepatitis is a dangerous inflammatory condition that affects one of the most important organs in your body: the liver. Discover the symptoms, modes of transmission, and who should be tested for the 3 most common types of hepatitis in the United States.

Hepatitis is commonly caused by a viral infection (though there are other ways of contracting it), and the severity of its symptoms depends on what type is contracted.

Hepatitis A, B, C, D and E are the most well known forms of the virus. Hepatitis F is believed to exist but has yet to be confirmed, and may be a mutation of the Hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis G is a newly-discovered form of the virus.

Because Hepatitis A, B and C are the most common types found in the United States, those are the types we’ll cover.

Why Is Hepatitis Dangerous?

Hepatitis is particularly hazardous because it impacts your liver, an organ responsible for hundreds of chemical actions inside your body. The liver is your largest internal organ and performs just a few of these essential functions:

  • Bile production
  • Filtering toxins
  • Excreting cholesterol, hormones, and drugs
  • Breaking down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
  • Storing glycogen, minerals, and vitamins
  • Synthesizing blood proteins

Any illness that compromises these functions poses a dangerous and potentially fatal risk to your health. Depending on the type of hepatitis contracted, infections can last short- or long-term and progress to fibrosis, cirrhosis, or liver cancer.

What Is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A (HAV) is exceedingly common in parts of the world that lack modern sanitation. However, outbreaks still occur in the states; about 4,000 new infections are reported in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is most often transmitted by consuming food or water contaminated by the feces of an infected person.

Unlike the B and C types, Hep A does not develop into a chronic condition. It is an acute, short-term infection whose symptoms appear quickly. These include:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • dark urine
  • pale stool
  • loss of appetite
  • abdominal pain
  • unexplained weight loss
  • jaundice

These symptoms may last for weeks or months.

The good news is that effective vaccines for Hepatitis A are available. Most victims recover with no lasting liver damage (though death is still possible for people with compromised immune systems).

What Is Hepatitis B?

The acute form of Hepatitis B (HBV) does not require specific treatment. It can be prevented with a vaccine, which the CDC recommends for all newborns. If the chronic version of the infection is contracted, it can be treated with antiviral medications (though these treatments are costly and must be continued for months or even years).

HBV can be spread in the following ways:

  • Having unprotected sex with an infected person
  • Sharing a needle with an infected person
  • Getting a tattoo with unsterilized needles
  • Sharing toothbrushes or razors with an infected person
  • Being bitten by an infected person

If left untreated, chronic Hepatitis B can lead to scarring of the liver. It can also cause hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of cancer. In 2015 – 887,000 deaths worldwide were linked to HBV.

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is the most common form of hepatitis infection in the United States. The CDC estimates that 3.5 million people are currently living with chronic Hepatitis C (HCV), and there are 41,000 new infections every year. It is the leading cause of liver transplants and liver cancer. Alarmingly, the CDC further estimates that 50 percent of people with HCV do not even know they are infected.

Unlike Hep A, whose symptoms are acute, Hep C can linger in your body for some time before it makes itself known. An infected victim may not realize they’re sick until real damage occurs to their liver. This is why it’s so easy to pass on the infection. While it takes only a microscopic amount of blood to infect a healthy person, in some cases no known mode of transmission can be identified. Between five and twenty percent of people with chronic Hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis. There is no current vaccine for this form of the disease.

Baby Boomers are especially vulnerable to HCV. If you were born between the years 1945 and 1965, there is a three in four chance that you have it. The reason for this is not fully understood. It is likely due to the lack of universal precautions and procedures that were put in place following that generation. It is highly recommended by medical authorities that Baby Boomers get tested.

The CDC also recommends testing for recipients of clotting factor concentrates before 1987, recipients of blood transfusions or donated organs before 1992; people who have injected drugs; long-term hemodialysis patients; and people with signs or symptoms of liver disease.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). What is Viral Hepatitis? Retrieved on 7/11/18 from https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/abc/index.htm.

Higeura, Valencia and Kahn, April (2017). Heptatitis. Retrieved on 7/11/18 from https://www.healthline.com/health/hepatitis.

Murrell, Daniel (2017). What's to know about viral hepatitis? Retrieved on 7/11/18 from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/145869.php.

WebMD (2017). A Visual Guide to Hepatitis. Retrieved on 7/11/18 from https://www.webmd.com/hepatitis/ss/slideshow-hepatitis-overview.

World Health Organization (2016). What is hepatitis? Retrieved on 7/11/18 from http://www.who.int/features/qa/76/en/.

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