Viral hepatitis isn’t quite the scourge it used to be. Thanks in large part to widespread immunization of adolescents and young children in the U.S. for hepatitis A and B, the incidence of the liver-destroying disease has fallen 90% in the past 20 years. Yet many people who could be vaccinated against hepatitis haven’t been -- and so remain at higher risk.
Scientists have identified several types of viral hepatitis. In the U.S., the main threats are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. They cause similar symptoms, including fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, joint pain, clay-colored bowel movements, and jaundice (yellow skin or eyes).
Almost all people with hepatitis A recover fully in weeks or months. In contrast, hepatitis B and C can become chronic infections that lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, and even death. What’s more, the three types differ in the way they spread from person to person:
- Hepatitis A. The hepatitis A virus (HAV) is present in the feces of people who have hepatitis A and spreads by fecal-oral contact. Infection can occur if even a microscopic amount of virus-laden feces reaches the mouth. This can happen by consuming contaminated food or beverages, as well as through close personal contact or sex with an infected person.
- Hepatitis B. The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is found in the blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and other body fluids of people who have hepatitis B. Infection occurs when there is contact with these fluids -- for example, during sex with an infected person or exposure to contaminated needles or personal items. Up to 25% of people with chronic HBV infection die from liver disease.
- Hepatitis C. The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is found in the blood of people who have hepatitis C. It can be spread by sexual contact, although it’s usually spread from mother to child during childbirth or by sharing hypodermic needles or other drug paraphernalia. Up to 85% of people infected with HCV develop chronic hepatitis C infection.
What’s the best way to protect your family against hepatitis? Follow these eight tips:
1. Ask your doctor about vaccination.
The vaccines for hepatitis A and hepatitis B are highly effective. They can be given in separate injections, or in a combined vaccine. No vaccine is available for hepatitis C.
2. Make hand-washing a priority.
Insist that family members wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom (or changing a diaper) and before handling food or eating. Washing with soap and water is fine, although alcohol-based hand sanitizers seem to be even more effective.
3. Watch out for other people’s blood.
There’s no way to tell that a particular person has hepatitis. “Many people with hepatitis have absolutely no symptoms whatsoever,” says Melissa Palmer, MD, clinical professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.