Straight to the Facts: Hepatitis

  • Caused by sexual contact or sharing drug supplies

  • Vaccine available for HBV, none for HCV

  • Only 30-50% of people show symptoms

  • Symptoms include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting

  • Dark-colored urine, clay-colored bowel movements, joint pain or jaundice indicate liver damage

  • No cure, but many will clear the infection on their own

  • Complications including permanent liver damage, liver cancer, and death

  • Hepatitis can be spread from mother to baby leading to serious illness in newborns

Hepatitis attacks cells in your liver. Your liver is essential for processing waste products in your body so they can be filtered out by your kidneys. If you don't process these waste products correctly, they will build up in your body and collect in places like your skin, eyes, and joints.


How do I know I have it?


Only about 30-50% of people who get infected with HBV show any symptoms. If you do show symptoms, this is called an acute infection and these symptoms can include flu-like symptoms like fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. You may also have dark-colored urine, clay-colored bowel movements, joint pain, and jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes. About 95% of people infected as adults with HBV clear the infection and it does not become chronic. However, about 90% of infants and up to 50% of children infected with HBV will develop chronic infections. Chronic infections can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death.

Viral hepatitis can be caused by one of 5 types of viruses: hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E. Of these, only hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) can be transmitted sexually. Other types of hepatitis are transmitted by fecal-oral routes, meaning not washing your hands after going to the bathroom and then making food for someone.


The CDC estimates that between 850,000 and 2.2 million people in the US have a chronic HBV infection. They also estimate that between 2.7 and 3.9 million people in the US have a chronic HCV infection. Additionally, although the number of acute HBV cases reported to the CDC has been pretty steady for the last few years, the number of acute HCV cases has exploded from around 750 in 2009 to more than 3,000 in 2016.

The CDC recommends you get tested for hepatitis if you: are an injection drug user, are a man who has sexual contact with other men, are a hemodialysis patient, are incarcerated, have HIV, get tattoos from unregulated parlors or have had sexual contact with someone who meets these criteria

Most people infected with HCV do not have any symptoms right away and it can take up to 7 months for any symptoms to appear. These symptoms will be very similar to HBV infections. Only 20-30% of people who get infected have an acute infection and the symptoms include fever, fatigue, dark urine, clay-colored stools, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, and jaundice. Chronic infections occur years later. Those symptoms can include chronic fatigue and depression, but many people have no symptoms at all. HCV infections may not be diagnosed until liver disease sets in.


How can I get it?


Hepatitis B is spread primarily by unprotected sex with an infected person. But, it can also be spread by sharing needles, open wounds, sharing personal hygiene supplies like razors or toothbrushes, and from pregnant mothers to babies during birth.


Hepatitis C is spread primarily through sharing injection needles and from pregnant mothers to babies during birth. Although it's uncommon, HCV can be spread through sex with an infected person, sharing personal hygiene products, and tattoo parlors that don't follow good hygiene practices.


How can I get treated?


Hepatitis B can be prevented with a vaccine. The CDC recommends that sexually active adults should get an HBV vaccine. If you've had unprotected sex within the last 24 hours, you can still receive the HBV vaccine to prevent infection. However, once you have a confirmed infection, there is no cure although you may recover and clear the infection on your own. People with chronic infections need specialized care. It is also possible for HBV infections to come back after you think they have cleared. This is called HBV reactivation and can be very serious resulting in death.


There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. There is also no treatment available for acute infections. However, new therapies are available for treatment of chronic HCV infections. Over 90% of people infected with HCV can be cured with specialized treatment.


What happens if I do not get treated?


Without treatment, HBV infections will probably get better and go away on their own. But, for people who get chronic infections, they may develop serious complications including cirrhosis and liver cancer and may die as a result of the infection. In 2016, 3,218 cases of HBV were reported to the CDC. The same year, 1,698 death certificates listed HBV as a cause of death.


Without treatment, HCV infections may lead to serious complications including cirrhosis and liver cancer and may lead to death. In 2016, 2,967 new cases of HCV were reported to the CDC. The same year, 18,153 death certificates listed HCV infection as a cause of death.


What if I am pregnant?


The CDC recommends that all women get tested for HBV early during every pregnancy. If you tested negative during your last pregnancy, it is important to get tested again during your current pregnancy.


HBV infections during pregnancy should be taken seriously. About 40% of infants born to HBV-infected mothers will develop chronic HBV infections themselves which may lead to early death. It is important for pregnant mothers to be screened for HBV early in their pregnancy. It is also possible to get on a medication which will greatly reduce the risk of spreading HBV from mother to baby. After birth, newborns should also receive specialized treatment for HBV to prevent infection if their mother has tested positive for HBV.


HCV infections during pregnancy may also result in spreading the HCV infection to the baby. There is currently no recommended treatment to prevent the spread of HCV during pregnancy or cure for children under 12. However, it is still important to talk to your doctor about your HCV infection if you are pregnant since your baby may need critical treatment shortly after birth.

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