Understanding different forms of hepatitis
Published on May 14, 2013 at 2:10 AM
It's Hepatitis Awareness Month. Understanding the different forms of hepatitis, who is at risk and how it can be prevented and treated can be confusing. Mayo Clinic infectious diseases expert Stacey Rizza, M.D., offers the following primer:
Hepatitis A -- A highly contagious viral condition that causes inflammation affecting the liver's ability to function, hepatitis A is most likely contracted from contaminated food, water or someone already infected. Mild cases don't require treatment, and most who have the infection recover completely with no permanent liver damage.
Effective vaccines are available and recommended for children at age 1; for older children who didn't get the vaccine at age 1; and for people traveling to areas with high rates of the illness, among others. Practicing good hand hygiene is one of the best ways to protect against hepatitis A.
Hepatitis B -- For some people, hepatitis B infection becomes chronic, leading to liver failure, liver cancer or cirrhosis -- a condition that causes permanent scarring of the liver. It is spread through bodily fluids. Most people infected as adults recover fully, even if their signs and symptoms are severe. Infants and children are much more likely to develop a chronic hepatitis B infection.
Although no cure exists for hepatitis B, treatment options are available and a vaccine can prevent the disease. Vaccination is recommended for infants; children who weren't vaccinated in infancy; people being treated for a sexually transmitted infection; health care workers and others who come in contact with blood on the job; people with end-stage kidney disease; and people traveling to areas with high rates of hepatitis B, among others. If a person is already infected, taking certain precautions can help prevent the spread of hepatitis B to others.
Hepatitis C -- Most people infected with the hepatitis C virus have no symptoms. And most don't know they have the hepatitis C infection until liver damage shows up decades later during routine medical tests. Generally considered to be among the most serious of the three viruses, hepatitis C is passed through contact with contaminated blood -- most commonly through needles shared during illegal drug use. Hepatitis C infection is treated with antiviral medications intended to clear the virus from the body.
"Hepatitis C infection can be asymptomatic for decades but typically appears as liver problems over time," Dr. Rizza says. "This can happen faster if people's immune systems decline due to other conditions as they age. It's a good idea to ask your physician about testing for it during your regular checkup. All forms of hepatitis should be taken seriously as the risks for them have increased in recent years."
The Centers for Disease Control recommends hepatitis C screening for all baby boomers.