The 28 July marks World Hepatitis Day – a day dedicated to enhancing awareness of viral hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver that causes a range of health problems, including liver cancer.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 325 million people around are living with hepatitis infection, and more than 1 million people die every year from hepatitis. However, general awareness of this virus is often much lower than other common illnesses, and many people may be unaware that they have it.
The WHO is calling on all countries to work together by 2030 to eliminate hepatitis as a public health concern. In support of this effort, our latest blog looks at the key facts you need to know about hepatitis.
What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. It mostly occurs because of a viral infection that shares the same name. However, excessive or long-term alcohol or drug consumption can also cause hepatitis.
There are five main strains of the hepatitis virus – A, B, C, D, and E, although hepatitis B and C are the most common cause of death. If untreated, hepatitis can lead to long-term problems, either in the form of chronic hepatitis or as a precursor for the development of cirrhosis, liver cancer, and reduced liver function.
The good news is that most forms of hepatitis can be avoided through vaccination, lifestyle choices, or other preventative practices.
What are the Different Types of Hepatitis?
While each type of hepatitis shares common symptoms, there are vast differences between how you can contract them.
Hepatitis A is found mostly in countries with poor sanitation. Hepatitis A is most commonly acquired from food and drink contaminated with fecal matter from someone who already has the infection.
There is no known treatment, so patients can only treat whichever symptoms they're experiencing. Unlike other forms of hepatitis, it is rarely life-threatening and does not cause chronic liver disease, although it can take several weeks or months for someone to recover.
Hepatitis A vaccines are available, and you should receive a vaccination if you plan to travel to a location where the virus is prevalent. You can check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to see which countries the vaccination is recommended for.
Hepatitis B is the most common hepatitis found around the world and is transmitted via infected blood and bodily fluids. The most common transmissions are from pregnant women to their unborn children. However, you can also be infected with hepatitis B from unprotected sex or drug injection from shared needles.
In some cases, hepatitis B can be severe and lead to chronic infection, increasing the risk of cirrhosis or liver cancer. While most adults deal with the virus well, typically shaking it off in a matter of weeks, the majority of children who contract hepatitis B before the age of one are likely to develop a more severe infection.
Antiviral medication can treat both acute and chronic hepatitis B, and vaccines are available. In countries with advanced immunization programs, it is common for children and young people to get the hepatitis B vaccine.
Hepatitis C is prevalent worldwide and also spreads via contaminated blood. In countries with lower healthcare standards, it can spread via unsafe injection and healthcare practices. Elsewhere, it is common for hepatitis C to spread because of the sharing of needles to inject drugs.
Approximately 80% of those infected with Hepatitis C do not experience any symptoms, while others may develop influenza like symptoms. However, most of those affected will develop a chronic infection leading to a high risk of developing cirrhosis and liver failure. Hepatitis C is a significant cause of liver disease worldwide.
There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C, although antiviral treatment is available.
You can only catch hepatitis D if you already have hepatitis B, and thankfully it is scarce. Hepatitis D typically transmits through blood on blood or sexual contact.
Hepatitis D is a more serious disease and, like other forms, increases the risk of developing liver cancer and cirrhosis. While there is no hepatitis D vaccine, vaccination against hepatitis B will mean you won't be able to get hepatitis D.
Hepatitis E has previously been associated with eating raw or undercooked meat and shellfish. However, we now know that like hepatitis A, it is shed in fecal matter and most commonly acquired by drinking contaminated water.
Most hepatitis E infections are mild and do not require treatment. However, it can be a dangerous virus if you're immunocompromised.
Hepatitis E vaccines are currently only available in China.
Alcoholic hepatitis can develop if you consume excessive volumes of alcohol over a long period. You usually won’t realize you have alcoholic hepatitis unless indicated by a blood test, or if you suddenly develop jaundice or liver failure.
If you receive an early diagnosis of alcoholic hepatitis and stop drinking, you can both rid yourself of the condition and reduce the risk of developing cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Autoimmune hepatitis is the rarest type of hepatitis, about which the medical profession has relatively little knowledge. However, some studies have identified that patients who acquire autoimmune hepatitis often already suffer from another autoimmune disorder.
When you have autoimmune hepatitis, your immune system starts to attack your liver, potentially resulting in organ failure.
Due to the lack of understanding around autoimmune hepatitis, it is currently unclear whether there is any way to prevent it from occurring. Hospitals use potent medicines to suppress your immune system to treat autoimmune hepatitis, but this treatment may also lead to side effects and other problems developing.
What are the Common Symptoms of Hepatitis?
Acute hepatitis is typically a short-term infection. You may not experience any symptoms or may not associate your symptoms with hepatitis.
Common symptoms across all types of hepatitis include:
- Musculoskeletal pain.
- Tiredness & fatigue.
- Loss of appetite.
- Stomach pain.
- Dark urine, even if you’re consuming a lot of water.
- Pale stools. In hepatitis patients, stools will often be a grey color.
- Itchy skin.
Chronic hepatitis may also not exhibit obvious symptoms until you become ill with liver failure. Often a hepatitis infection is only detected during blood testing, primarily looking for another condition.
Severe or terminal hepatitis can cause jaundice, confusion and disorientation, lower body swelling, vomiting, and blood in stools.
Understanding Hepatitis Prevention
Hepatitis is a relatively common and potentially severe set of diseases and viruses. While only a small proportion of the global population has a type of hepatitis at any one time, try to be aware of each type and how you might catch these viruses. If you plan to travel overseas, ensure you conduct thorough research to understand the potential risks of hepatitis, and arrange any vaccinations necessary before your trip.