Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. While it can be caused by drugs or alcohol use, it’s commonly caused by a virus. Chronic cases of viral hepatitis can lead to life-threatening diseases, including a scarring of the liver called cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer.
In the United States, the most common forms of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Hepatitis A is spread by eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with the feces of an infected person. Outbreaks have been traced to eating contaminated fresh fruits and vegetables, and drinking contaminated water. You can also become infected through close contact with a person who has hepatitis, for example through sexual contact or by changing a diaper.
The symptoms of hepatitis A are often like a stomach virus, and people typically recover within a month. Hepatitis A does not cause chronic liver disease.
Good hygiene, especially hand washing, helps halt the spread of the disease, but vaccination is the most effective means of preventing its spread. Vaccination is recommended for all children as early as one year of age. It’s also recommended for the general population and for individuals who are at increased risk for infection or complications from the disease.
Hepatitis B is usually spread through blood, semen or another body fluid from an infected person passing to another individual. It can happen through sexual contact, shared needles or other injection drug use. Additionally, an infected expectant mother can pass the virus to her baby.
Hepatitis B is found in the highest concentrations in blood, but it can also be found in lower concentrations in other body fluids, such as semen. The disease can be a mild illness lasting a few weeks, or a serious, life-long illness.
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s strategy for halting the spread of hepatitis B involves routine screening of pregnant women, vaccination of infants and children through age 18, and vaccination of adults at increased risk for infection.
Hepatitis C is the most common chronic blood-borne infection in the United States. About 3.2 million people are chronically infected. Baby boomers, individuals born between 1945-1965, are five times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than other Americans. Hepatitis C usually spreads when blood from an infected person enters another person. Today, most people become infected with the virus by sharing needles or other injection drug use.
Before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992, hepatitis C was also spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Studies have indicated that sexual transmission of hepatitis C is possible but inefficient, although those findings remain controversial.
About 60 percent of individuals newly infected with the disease have no symptoms or only a mild illness. Chronic hepatitis C infections develop in 70 to 85 percent of those infected. The majority of infected individuals are unaware of their infection, but they can transmit it to others. Decades after the infection they are also at risk for chronic liver disease or other liver diseases.
In Montana between 2010 and 2012, a total of 3,849 cases of hepatitis C were reported, with 22 of those cases reported as acute. Of the total reported cases, 675 cases were in Yellowstone County.
While there is no vaccination for hepatitis C, there are highly effective treatments available, so it pays to know your health status and get tested.
Tamalee St. James is the Director of Community & Family Health Services at RiverStone Health, and can be reached at 247.3357 or firstname.lastname@example.org.