The liver is an extraordinary organ in the human body. It is vital to our survival and performs several functions. The liver is located in the upper right hand side of the abdomen and it processes the body’s nutrients. In addition, this powerhouse organ manufactures bile to help digest fats, synthesizing many important proteins. Further, the liver breaks down potentially toxic substances into ones that the body can use or excrete. Finally, it is responsible for regulating blood clotting. Hepatitis is very simply inflammation of the liver.
Most commonly the disease is caused by viruses, but other known causes could include autoimmune disease, alcohol, drugs or it may be an inherited disease. Things such as body piercing, unprotected sex and tattoos can also lead to the disease. Inflammation of the liver can be chronic (enduring over several years) or acute (flaring up and then resolving over weeks to months). Chronic hepatitis can be very serious and it might persist for up to 20 years before showing significant symptoms. This form of hepatitis might permanently damage the liver, often resulting in liver cancer, cirrhosis or death.
The three most common hepatitis viruses are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Hepatitis A is spread through feces of infected individuals. Normally it is transmitted by drinking water or eating food that has been contaminated. It is less serious than some of the other forms and it rarely leads to permanent liver damage. Hepatitis A will goes away on its own within a few weeks and the virus is no longer in your system. Hepatitis B is a more serious infection – it can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis or even death. Hepatitis B is transmitted through body fluids and through blood of infected persons. It is most commonly spread through unprotected sex. Shared needles are another risk for developing this form of hepatitis. Medications can help some people to get rid of the virus, but others will have the disease forever. Hepatitis C is the most serious form of the hepatitis viruses. Like Hepatitis B, it is spread from person to person through body fluids and through blood. This form kills thousands of people in the United States each year. It is estimated that 4.1 million Americans are currently infected with hepatitis C and it can also lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. There are two other types of the hepatitis virus (D & E), but these are very rare in the United States. Hepatitis D is usually spread by exposure to infected needles or blood and it causes an infection when hepatitis B is present. Hepatitis E is primarily found in South America, Africa and Asia, and is spread in a similar fashion to hepatitis A.
Regardless of the cause, there are 6 common signs of hepatitis; however, these vary from person to person over time and may be mistaken for the flu. The most common symptoms include fatigue, abdominal pain, joint aches, nausea, itching and jaundice (yellow coloring of the eyes and skin). There could be additional symptoms such as loss of appetite, dark colored urine, light colored stools and fever. More serious signs could be fluid in the abdomen, called ascites, and mental confusion. Quite often hepatitis is discovered during a yearly physical. The physical examination will most likely reveal a liver that is enlarged and tender to touch. Routine blood chemistries, including a liver panel, could show the first indication of liver damage or inflammation. These tests will help to diagnose hepatitis, but will not determine the underlying cause. Further testing would be necessary to pinpoint the direct cause to help with the treatment plan of care.
Luckily, the incidence of new cases of viral hepatitis has decreased. This is mainly due to safe sex practices and safe injection methods (preventing further cases of hepatitis B & C). Further, there are now vaccines for hepatitis A and B. However, there is no vaccine available for hepatitis C. Additionally, screening blood for hepatitis B and C has almost eliminated any infections through blood transfusions. In addition to receiving vaccinations against hepatitis A and B, there are certain measures you can take to protect yourself against this serious infection. Be sure to protect yourself during sex. Do not share drug paraphernalia and avoid intravenous drug use. Don’t share toothbrushes or razors – hepatitis can be transmitted through cuts. Be sure that tattoo or piercing shops are utilizing sterilized needles and other equipment. Wash your hands thoroughly before handling food and after using the bathroom. Avoid eating raw shellfish (i.e. oysters and clams) because hepatitis A can be caught from contaminated water.