Viral hepatitis is caused by a variety of viruses, and affects millions of people throughout the world. Simply, hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, but for some, it can last a lifetime.
First up in the alphabet is hepatitis A. According to Paul Chittick, M.D., an infectious diseases specialist at Beaumont, this form of the virus is mostly spread through inadequate hygiene.
"Most people get hepatitis A through contaminated food or from fecal to oral contact. You get it through direct contact with a person who is infected, or if someone with the infection prepares or touches your food with inadequately cleaned hands," he explained. "Usually a couple of weeks after being infected, you experience nausea, vomiting, and a yellowing of the skin called jaundice. More than 99 percent of people infected with hepatitis A will get better by themselves, but if you have another liver ailment, it could be life threatening. Hepatitis A is completely preventable with a vaccine."
Generally, there are no long-term effects of hepatitis A and once you get it, you're immune for life.
"Transmitted primarily through blood and body fluids, it really depends on the part of the world you live in as to how you contract hepatitis B," said Dr. Chittick. "In areas with higher rates of hepatitis B, it's more common to get when a mom transmits the disease to her baby at birth, or through childhood cuts and scrapes. In the U.S., it's more of a sexually transmitted disease, or you can get it through IV drug needles."
Worldwide, about 250 million people are infected chronic hepatitis B. While treatable, it is not curable. Once you start taking medication, you're usually on it for life. However, there is a vaccine that can prevent you from getting it.
"Hepatitis B can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer," said Dr. Chittick. "Hepatitis causes liver inflammation, and this inflammation leads to scarring. More scarring leads to cirrhosis, which puts you at higher risk for liver failure. The majority of those infected don't show symptoms, so you have to get tested."
Hepatitis C prefers blood as it's mode of transmission, usually a shared IV drug needle. "Two-thirds of people with hepatitis c got it through IV drug use. Because of the spike in opiate drug use in the U.S., we've seen a surge of new cases of hepatitis C in the last 10 years."
While completely curable with medications - it's as simple as one pill a day for two to three months - the long-term effects depend on how much liver damage was done before you were treated.
"Most of the time, there aren't any symptoms until you have a lot of damage. Since we don't have a vaccine, there's a big push now to screen more people regularly, particularly Baby Boomers. We recommend everyone born between 1945 - 1965 be tested at least once."