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Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by any one of several viruses. It strikes at least one million people in the United States each year. This website gives an overview of its various forms, with a special focus on hepatitis B.
Types of Viral Hepatitis
There are at least five known hepatitis viruses.
- Hepatitis A is the most common form of hepatitis. It is transmitted primarily through contaminated food or water sources and person to person (fecal-oral) contact. Hepatitis A is the type of hepatitis that people are concerned about when traveling to developing countries. It seldom causes a serious illness.
- Hepatitis B (HBV) is transmitted sexually, through blood or body fluids, by sharing contaminated needles, and during birth.
- Hepatitis C is primarily spread through blood and possibly other body fluids, by sharing needles, or sexually (although rare).
- Hepatitis D is transmitted by blood and blood products. The risk factors for infection are similar to those for hepatitis B virus infection. This type most often infects intravenous drug users. In humans, hepatitis D only occurs in the presence of hepatitis B infection.
- Hepatitis E is transmitted by the fecal-oral route. The potential exists for food borne transmission.
Why is Hepatitis B Such a Concern?
About 300,000 Americans contract this virus each year. Most of these individuals are adolescents and young adults. Because HBV is particularly common among college students and because it is preventable through a vaccine, it warrants special consideration.
Why is Hepatitis B Dangerous?
Hepatitis B can strike silently and damage your liver. For some, the virus may be gone in six months. However, others become carriers for the rest of their lives and risk transmitting it to those they care about. If you are a carrier, you may develop cirrhosis of the liver, and you may be 200 times more likely to develop liver cancer.
Hepatitis B is considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Although sexual contact is not its exclusive method of transmission, your chances of getting HBV from unsafe sex are greater than getting HIV, because HBV is 100 times more infectious than HIV. Hepatitis B has no cure, but there is a vaccine to prevent the infection.
The hepatitis B vaccine provides safe, effective, lifelong protection. The vaccine is given in the arm, in three doses. All three shots are required for adequate protection against hepatitis B. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all adolescents and young adults get the hepatitis B vaccine to protect themselves. Young adults need to protect themselves before becoming sexually active and before being exposed to hepatitis B.
How is HBV Contracted?
Common behaviors that put you at risk of contracting the hepatitis B virus include:
- Practicing unsafe sex - HBV is found in infected semen, vaginal secretions and saliva. You can contract it through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Having sex without a condom or latex barrier makes infection more likely, but you can get hepatitis B from any sex act if your partner is infected. The more sex partners you have, the higher your risk of contracting HBV.
- Sharing needles - An estimated 60 to 80% of those who share drug needles are, or have been, infected with hepatitis B. Also, needles used for tattooing, acupuncture, and ear or body piercing could be contaminated. Select a reputable professional for these services.
- Close, frequent contact - If you are a health care provider, you can get HBV from contact with the semen, vaginal secretions, blood, or saliva of an infected person. You can contract the virus by sharing tweezers or razors with an infected person in your household. Being exposed to an infected person's blood, through cuts, open sores or mucus membranes (mouth or vagina) also transmits the virus. HBV can be spread, although rarely, through blood transfusions. Generally the blood supply is safe because of strict screening tests that it must undergo.
- Kissing - It is also possible to get hepatitis B from kissing because the virus can be found in saliva.
Many people with hepatitis B don't have symptoms. Symptoms, if they occur, appear from one to six months after exposure to the virus. These symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, headache, joint pain, muscle aches, and abdominal pain. After a few weeks, some infected people have jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Darkened urine is also possible.
Come to the Health Center if you have any of these symptoms for an appropriate diagnosis.
There is no cure for hepatitis B. During its active stage, your clinician will probably recommend rest along with a high protein and carbohydrate diet. In order to control nausea, eat several small meals instead of three large ones a day. Avoid alcohol consumption and acetaminophen because these can exacerbate the chances of liver damage while you are ill. Following recovery, a simple blood test can determine whether or not you still carry hepatitis B and the appropriate measures you should take.
Get vaccinated. This is especially important if you are at high risk. The vaccine consists of three shots over a six-month period and has a more than 90% rate of effectiveness.
Practice safer sex. During vaginal, anal, or oral sex, a latex condom should always be used. Only having one sex partner, who is uninfected and only has sex with you, also reduces the risk.
Don't use drugs. If you use drugs, seek help and never share needles.
Practice good hygiene. This is especially important if you live with an infected person. Never share razors, tweezers, toothbrushes, pierced earrings or any other objects which might transfer bodily fluids.
Pregnancy is a special concern because Hepatitis B can be passed to an unborn child in utero. If you are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant, talk to your clinician about being tested. Your baby should be vaccinated immediately after it is born.