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Wednesday, March 12, 2014
May is Hepatitis Awareness Month and therefore a good time to talk about this widespread disease that infects hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Hepatitis comes in many forms, with different methods of transmission, characteristics and consequences. The spread of hepatitis, however, is preventable by getting vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B, taking common-sense precautions, avoiding high-risk behaviors, and getting tested and treated for hepatitis when appropriate.
Hepatitis A is the most prevalent - but fortunately the least dangerous form of the disease. Hepatitis A accounts for nearly 60 percent of the total number of hepatitis cases diagnosed in the United States each year, with an estimated 150,000 Americans becoming infected annually. Hepatitis A is spread through the fecal-oral route. Common ways that it is transmitted include close contact with an infected person, eating food prepared by infected restaurant workers, ingesting raw or undercooked shellfish from infected waters, and drinking contaminated water while traveling in developing countries. Hepatitis A has an incubation period of 20 to 50 days, and most patients are ill for about three weeks. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, fever/chills and pain around the liver which is in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. It is rare for healthy individuals to have serious complications as a result of the infection. Hepatitis A is preventable by getting vaccinated and practicing safe food-handling methods.
Hepatitis B and C are much more serious infections and can have severe long-term consequences. These forms of hepatitis infect about 130,000 Americans each year and are spread when blood or body fluids from an infected person enter another person. Common methods of transmission include unprotected sex with multiple partners, sharing intravenous needles, sharing personal-care items such as razors and toothbrushes, and getting tattoos with infected needles. Hepatitis B has an incubation period of 45 to 180 days while Hepatitis C has an incubation period of 14 to 180 days. Symptoms of Hepatitis B and C include jaundice, fatigue, joint pain, abdominal pain and nausea. The danger of Hepatitis B and C is the risk of chronic infection. About 5 percent of Hepatitis B infections become chronic and about 80 percent of Hepatitis C infections become chronic. It is these chronic infections that can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer and end-stage liver disease. People who develop end-stage liver disease, as well as those with certain forms of liver cancer, often require liver transplants to survive. To prevent infection from Hepatitis B, ask your doctor for a vaccination. To avoid contracting Hepatitis C, do not engage in the high-risk behaviors mentioned above, as there is presently no vaccine or medications to successfully treat those with chronic Hepatitis C infection.
As Director of Liver Transplant Services at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, I see the damage caused by hepatitis every day. Chronic infections of hepatitis wreak havoc on otherwise healthy livers, severely limiting and eventually ending the livers' ability to filter and detoxify what we eat, breathe and drink. This means patients must go on lengthy liver transplant lists and go through the trauma of major transplant surgery.
Help stop the spread of hepatitis. Get vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B. Do not engage in high-risk behaviors. If you suspect that you have hepatitis, see your doctor to get tested so that you can get treatment.
Last Reviewed: Aug 19, 2003
Steven M Rudich, MD, PhD, FACS
Professor of Surgery, Director of Liver Transplat and Hepatobiliary Surgery
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati