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Kim Bailey

Kim Bailey

Television commercials encouraging testing for Hepatitis C and national news stories about Hepatitis A outbreaks may have left you wondering, “What’s up with hepatitis?”

The word hepatitis comes from the Greek word “Hepatos” which means “liver” and –itis which means “inflammation.” Hepatitis simply means “liver inflammation.”

More than 50,000 people are newly infected with hepatitis each year and it is the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates as many as 6 million people in the U.S. are living with hepatitis.

Hepatitis A, B and C are caused by separate and distinct viruses. All three can cause an acute illness with similar symptoms of fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, dark urine, joint pain and jaundice, which is a yellowing of the eyes and skin. Some people have no symptoms or only a mild illness that comes and goes. Hepatitis B and C can become a chronic illness with few or no symptoms, leaving you unaware you are infected, until you get very sick.

Here are some things you should know about viral hepatitis:

Hepatitis A, or HAV, is usually transmitted through contaminated water or food. Certain sex practices can also spread HAV. Many infections are mild, with people making a full recovery, but HAV infections can also be life threatening. Most people who live in areas of the world with poor sanitation have been infected with this virus. Safe and effective vaccines can prevent HAV.

Hepatitis B spreads through exposure to infected blood, semen or other body fluids. It can happen through sexual contact; shared syringes or other drug-injection equipment; or from mother to baby at birth. Hepatitis B can be a short-term illness or a chronic infection. The risk for chronic infection is related to age. About 90 percent of infected infants become chronically infected, compared with 2 to 6 percent of adults. Chronic Hepatitis B can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Safe and effective vaccines can prevent HBV.

Hepatitis C mainly spreads through exposure to infected blood. Most people become infected by sharing needles or other equipment contaminated with blood to inject drugs. Sexual transmission is also possible, but is much less common. Hepatitis C can be a short-term illness, but for about three-quarters of those infected with Hepatitis C it becomes a chronic, long-term infection. Chronic Hepatitis C can result in severe health problems, and even death. The only way to know if you have Hepatitis C is to get tested. There is no vaccine available to prevent HCV infection but there are new treatments available that are well tolerated and may be able to cure HCV. Ask your primary care provider about treatment if you are infected.

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Kim Bailey, BSN, RN, CIC, Communicable Disease Program Manager of Public Health Services at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 406.651.6435 or kim.bai@riverstonehealth.org

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