What Is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is simply the term for inflammation of the liver. Located below the diaphragm and above the stomach, the liver clears waste products from the blood, helps break down nutrients, and regulates blood clotting, among many other crucial functions. Hepatitis usually is caused by a viral infection and can affect proper liver functioning. The most common hepatitis viruses are:
- Hepatitis A: This is an acute infection that does not always require treatment. It can be prevented through vaccination.
- Hepatitis B: This is an infection that can lead to chronic liver disease if left untreated. It can be prevented by vaccination.
- Hepatitis C: This is an infection that can lead to chronic liver disease if left untreated, and for which there is no vaccine.
Other issues such as bacterial infections, long-term alcohol abuse, and autoimmune problems also can cause liver inflammation.
What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis?
If a patient contracts Hepatitis A, B, or C, they may not show signs right away. As the infection progresses, they can have symptoms including:
- Dark-colored urine
- Yellow discoloration of the skin or whites of the eyes, known as jaundice
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Low-grade fever
- Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain
- Pale, clay-colored stool
- Unexplained weight loss
If left untreated, hepatitis can lead to liver failure, cirrhosis, or long-term liver damage.
Which Patients Are at Risk for Hepatitis?
Risk factors for hepatitis vary by type:
Hepatitis A Risk Factors
Unlike Hepatitis B and C, Hepatitis A does not cause long-term liver problems. However, it is still important to know the risk factors for Hepatitis A, which is highly contagious and usually contracted through food or drink. These include:
- Traveling internationally
- Living in a congregate setting, such as a nursing home
- Working in the healthcare or food industries
- Consuming raw shellfish
A Hepatitis A vaccine series is typically recommended for children between the ages of one and two.
Hepatitis B Risk Factors
In the U.S., vaccination against Hepatitis B has been recommended for infants since the early 1990s. Risk factors for contracting the Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) include:
- Drug use: People who share needles or syringes for intravenous drug use are more likely to get HBV.
- Close contact: Patients who live with someone who has HBV or work in a healthcare setting where they are exposed to blood are more likely to contract an infection.
- Sexual health: Patients who have unprotected intercourse are more at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including Hepatitis B.
- Underlying health conditions: People who are on dialysis or have elevated liver enzymes can be at greater risk of Hepatitis B infection.
Hepatitis C Risk Factors
The risk factors for Hepatitis B and C are similar. Because Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) is primarily spread by contact with blood, patients who had blood transfusions before 1990 were at higher risk. However, in the 1990s, routine blood screening for HCV antibodies was introduced, virtually eliminating transfusion-related cases. Today, injection drug use is the biggest risk factor for Hepatitis C. Other patients at risk are:
- Infants born to mothers infected with HCV
- People who share personal items such as razors or toothbrushes with a person who has HCV
- Healthcare workers who experience needle-stick accidents
Unlike Hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C.
How Is Hepatitis Diagnosed?
If a patient is showing any symptoms of a hepatitis infection, they should see their primary care provider or gastroenterologist right away. Their doctor will review their symptoms, conduct a physical exam, and look for signs of liver damage, such as jaundice. Tests for hepatitis include:
- Blood work
- Liver biopsy
- Ultrasound to assess liver damage
A blood test can determine whether the type of hepatitis is A, B, or C, as well as help the medical team judge the severity of the infection.
What Are the Treatment Options for Hepatitis A, B, and C?
There is no specific treatment for Hepatitis A. Fortunately, the body can clear the virus on its own. Patients with HAV typically need supportive care: they should get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet. They may need to have follow-up appointments so their provider can monitor their liver function.
Patients with HBV may have an acute or chronic hepatitis B infection. An acute case will go away on its own and can be treated with supportive care to help the body fight the infection, similar to HAV treatment. However, a patient with a chronic hepatitis B infection will need ongoing treatment for the rest of their life. They may take oral antiviral medications or receive injection treatments, which manage the infection and can slow the progression of liver damage. Some patients with severe liver damage because of chronic hepatitis eventually seek a liver transplant.
If a patient tests positive for Hepatitis C, they should be treated right away with a course of oral medication to prevent liver damage. Patients typically will take antiviral medication for eight to 12 weeks. This treatment can be very effective at clearing the virus with minimal side effects.
Find Care You Can Trust at Bergen Medical Associates
With locations throughout northern NJ, Bergen Medical Associates offers expert care for patients throughout the region. With a team of experienced physicians offering primary care as well as specialties like gastroenterology, Bergen Medical Associates is well-equipped to diagnose and treat many different conditions, with multiple specialties. Our onsite services include blood testing and ultrasound so patients can get all the diagnostic care they need in one place. To learn more about hepatitis treatment, request an appointment or contact us today.