What Is Hepatitis? Deciphering the Difference

    Taking care of every part of your body is essential, including your liver. The liver helps in a number of bodily functions from producing hormones to filtering out toxins to breaking down macronutrients from your food. Just like many other parts of the body, the liver can sometimes get an infection, usually caused by a virus. This infection in the liver is called hepatitis, and it can be caused by several viral strains. It does, however, need quick medical attention and monitoring.

    Recently, the city of San Diego has seen a dangerous hepatitis outbreak, spreading quickly due to sanitation problems in poorer areas. So far, over 300 people have been hospitalized due to the outbreak, and unfortunately 15 have died.

    Many of those infected are homeless, a fact that has likely contributed to the outbreak. Because the homeless don’t have adequate restrooms or showers, they can easily spread any hepatitis infections through contaminated bodily fluids and fecal matter.  

    In response to the hepatitis outbreak, city officials have installed 40 hand-washing stations in areas highly populated by the homeless. They are expecting to install more in the coming week. In addition, the city is moving forward with a bi-weekly street washing which includes pressure-washing dirty areas with chlorinated water.

    Also, the city’s police will escort mobile vaccination teams throughout the city, and many vaccination clinics will expand in public libraries. There has also been talk of expanding access to public restrooms, but officials have not yet confirmed any plans. Thankfully, officials understand the danger of this outbreak and are acting accordingly.

    Viral Hepatitis

    While you can get hepatitis through drugs, toxins, alcohol or even an autoimmune response, most cases occur due to viral infections. These infections come in five different forms, and they are each caused by a different virus. Let’s take a closer look at the most common forms in the US: hepatitis A, B and C.

    Hepatitis A

    This virus presents itself in an infected person’s fecal matter and is often spread through contaminated food or water. Most cases of hepatitis A are mild, and an infected person can usually fend off the virus through adequate rest, food and hydration.

    However, this form can sometimes be life-threatening, especially in areas with poor sanitation. According to the CDC, about 2,500 acute infections occurred in the US in 2014.

    Hepatitis B

    For this type of hepatitis, the virus can spread through the transfer of bodily fluids. A person can get an infection through blood, contaminated needles or other medical equipment, and transmission from a mother to her baby during birth. An infant may also contract the virus from an infected person in early childhood.

    In the US, an estimated 19,000 acute cases occurred in 2014, but up to 2 million may be living with chronic infections. Many people don’t know that they have the virus, and therefore many cases go unreported.

    For Hepatitis B, a patient will only need specific treatment if the infection turns chronic. In this case, a doctor will prescribe antiviral medication and may also monitor the patient to see that the treatment is working.

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    Hepatitis C

    This infection is spread mostly through contact with an infected person’s blood. A person may receive the infection through a blood transfusion, contaminated medical equipment or injected drug use.

    Less often, a person can contract hepatitis C through sexual transmission. For this virus, up to 30,000 people may have received an acute infection in 2014, and an estimated 3–4 million are living with chronic hepatitis C.

    To treat both acute and chronic forms, patients will usually need a series of antiviral medications. Doctors may also conduct further testing in order to target the treatment. In patients who develop cirrhosis or liver disease, a doctor may recommend a liver transplant.

    Symptoms

    Many times, the symptoms for hepatitis go unnoticed because they happen slowly. Thousands or even millions of people in the United States may be living with chronic hepatitis infections without even realizing it. The symptoms for hepatitis include:

    • Dark urine or discolored stool
    • Extreme fatigue
    • Flu-like symptoms
    • Abdominal pain
    • Weight loss
    • Yellowed skin or eyes

    To diagnose an infection, your doctor will likely perform a physical examination, pressing down on your stomach. He may also take blood tests to see if your liver is performing properly. If the results come back abnormal, he may pursue more blood tests for hepatitis specifically or opt for a biopsy or ultrasound.

    Prevention

    The best way to prevent a virus is through proper vaccination and sanitation. Be sure to wash your hands regularly throughout the day, especially before meals. In addition, avoid direct contact with another person’s blood or other bodily fluids. Then, be sure to stay updated on the vaccines for hepatitis A and B. Currently, there is no vaccination for hepatitis C.

    Any infection in the body needs to be addressed, especially hepatitis. This infection can impair or damage the liver, causing problems in many functional parts of the body. If you notice any of the above symptoms or suspect that you came into contact with an infected person, it’s best to check in with your doctor.