Hepatitis, a disease that causes the liver to swell and function improperly, is a serious health issue. Each year, tens of thousands of new hepatitis cases are reported in the U.S., and more than 4 million people suffer from chronic forms of hepatitis strains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But do you actually know what the condition is and what part of the body it affects?
The general confusion is compounded by the multiple types of hepatitis. There are different types of hepatitis, each with its own distinct characteristics. Here is a breakdown of the main three types: hepatitis A, B, and C.
Common Hepatitis Symptoms
The CDC lists the common symptoms that typically present across all three types:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Gray-colored bowel movements
- Joint pain
Although they may share a list of common symptoms, hepatitis A, B, and C each have their own causes, treatments, and at-risk populations.
Hepatitis A Virus (HAV)
Hepatitis A is the least common of the three main strains. It presents as an acute illness only. It's vaccine-preventable and is diagnosed via a blood test.
- Causes: Ingesting even microscopic amounts of fecal matter from contaminated food or drinks; not washing hands after using the bathroom or changing a diaper; or sexual or close person-to-person contact with an infected person.
- Duration and treatment: HAV generally goes away on its own within six months; however, it can still cause liver failure. Doctors recommend supportive treatment through bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids, a healthy diet, and avoiding alcohol. Medication is also an option but not necessarily the first recommended course of treatment.
- At-risk populations: Any person with a liver disease; people over the age of 60; drug users; caregivers of or people who live with an infected person; people who have recently traveled to countries where HAV is common.
Hepatitis B Virus (HBV)
Hepatitis B can be either acute or chronic. It's vaccine-preventable and can also be diagnosed through a blood test.
- Causes: Coming into contact with HBV-infected blood, semen, or other bodily fluids; being born to an infected mother; making sexual contact with an infected person; sharing contaminated needles or syringes; or incurring a puncture wound from a sharp, contaminated instrument.
- Duration and treatment: About 95 percent of people recover from acute HBV within six months with supportive treatment, but about 5 percent develop chronic HBV. and have it all their lives. Chronic HBV sufferers should be screened for liver diseases every six to 12 months.
- At-risk populations: Anyone who has injected or inhaled drugs (even once); people who have been on hemodialysis; those who've traveled to countries where HBV is common; or people who have worked or been housed in a prison.
Hepatitis C Virus (HCV)
Hepatitis C is the most common of the three main viral hepatitis strains. It's the leading cause of liver failure and puts the affected at increased risk of developing end-stage liver disease, leading to many liver transplants. It often shows up as acute at first but typically becomes a chronic issue. It, too, is diagnosed via a blood test, but what really separates hepatitis C from A and B is the fact that there's no vaccine for it.
- Causes: Direct blood-to-blood contact, whether that's via a blood transfusion, contaminated needles used for intravenous drug use, tattoos, body piercings, or sharing infected personal items such as toothbrushes, razors, or nail clippers; or, less commonly, having sexual contact with an infected person.
- Duration and treatment: For those with acute hepatitis C, doctors typically prescribe antivirals and supportive treatment within six months of infection. For chronic hepatitis C patients, doctors will require regular testing for liver disease progression, but new antiviral medications provide shorter treatments and higher success rates.
- At-risk populations: Anyone born between 1945 and 1965; people who have received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992; those who have received clotting factor concentrates before 1987; injected drug users (even one-time users); anyone who's been on long-term hemodialysis; people with HIV; or people showing signs of liver disease.
If you're at risk for developing hepatitis, have your doctor perform a blood test for antibodies right away. Your liver is a vital organ, so the earlier you catch any hepatitis infection, the better your outcome will be. This makes testing a crucial aspect of maintaining your health.