Hepatitis is a viral infection that causes inflammation of the liver. Without treatment, hepatitis can lead to liver damage and, eventually, liver failure and death. Hepatitis can be divided into three types:
Hepatitis A is a rare disease caused by ingesting contaminated food or water or by having contact with an infected person.
Hepatitis B is common, affecting more than 200,000 people each year. It’s most commonly transmitted through bodily fluids, including sexual activity and use of contaminated needles.
Hepatitis C is also common, and it’s spread through contact with infected blood, such as during a blood transfusion or through the use of infected needles, including infected tattoo needles. Baby boomers are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other age groups.
Hepatitis often causes few or no symptoms until liver damage or dysfunction occurs. When symptoms do occur, they can include:
joint pain or achiness
yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
nausea or vomiting
loss of appetite
Because hepatitis can cause liver damage before symptoms become apparent, being tested for hepatitis infections is an important part of staying healthy.
Diagnosis begins with a physical exam and a review of symptoms, as well as a thorough medical history. Blood tests can determine if the virus is present in the body. If hepatitis is detected, a biopsy procedure may be recommended to obtain a small amount of tissue from the liver so the organ can be assessed for damage. Diagnostic imaging evaluations may also be ordered.
Hepatitis can be managed with medication, including the use of antiviral medications. Some patients require prolonged use of these medications to ensure the virus is destroyed, but newer medications have reduced the time required for some treatments. When extensive liver damage has occurred, a liver transplant may be required. Vaccinations against hepatitis infections are part of routine childhood immunizations today, but those vaccines only became available in the 1980s and 1990s. Patients born before that time and especially those born in the 1970s and earlier should be screened for hepatitis infections.
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