Along with Vision Health Month and Hypertension Awareness Month, the month of May is also designated as Hepatitis Awareness Month. Hepatitis is a type of virus that attacks the liver, resulting in inflammation. There are at least six forms of hepatitis that have been identified by scientists that an individual can be diagnosed with, though types A, B and C are generally the most common and account for as many as 90% of acute hepatitis cases in the country. Many individuals diagnosed with hepatitis will make a complete recovery, while others can become carriers of the virus and may unknowingly spread it to others. Below, Dr. Ali Ghahary shares important information on how one can develop hepatitis, what a hepatitis diagnosis means for your health in the long-run, how you can prevent spreading the virus to others, and what you can do in terms of treatment.
If you’ve ever consumed contaminated food or water, then you are at risk of developing hepatitis A. Food and water can become contaminated as a result of being handled by an already contaminated food handler, poor hygiene (i.e. failing to wash hands properly after using the restroom), and can even become contaminated during harvesting, manufacturing and processing. The most common food sources that can lead to hepatitis A include water, raw fruits and/or vegetables, as well as raw and/or undercooked shellfish.
If you do happen to become infected with hepatitis A, you can experience a wide range of symptoms or no symptoms at all. However, the most common symptoms associated with hepatitis A include stomach cramps, loss of appetite, fatigue, fever, jaundice and dark urine. These symptoms can present anywhere between 2 and 7 weeks after being infected with the hepatitis A virus, and typically last anywhere from 1 to 2 weeks. Most people diagnosed with hepatitis A will recover with little to no treatment, and rarely is it fatal. However, it can be fatal for women who are pregnant – particularly for those in their third trimester.
In order to prevent hepatitis A, it’s recommended that you ensure you practice good hygiene habits. That means washing your hands after using the restroom, as well as before preparing or eating any food. If you travel, make sure you drink water that is considered safe, avoid using ice cubes in your beverage, eat foods that are only freshy cooked, and try to avoid raw fruits or vegetables that cannot be peeled. Foods should also be cooked to a safe internal temperature, and you can determine this by using a digital thermometer. Before traveling, you may also want to speak to your doctor about getting vaccinated against the hepatitis A virus if you haven’t been already.
Hepatitis B, also known as the HBV virus, is one of the most prevalent strains of hepatitis in the world and is considered to be more infectious than HIV – though it’s estimated that less than 1% of Canadian population has the hepatitis B virus. Unlike hepatitis A, hepatitis B is not spread through contaminated food or water. Instead, it is spread through human-to-human contact – such as bodily fluids (i.e. semen or vaginal fluid.) There are also many risk factors that lead to an increased likelihood of developing the hepatitis B virus, such as those who partake in sexual activity that is considered high risk (i.e. having unprotected sex or multiple sexual partners), being born in a region where HBV is widespread, exposure to blood or blood products, sharing personal hygiene tools (such as razors, nail clippers and toothbrushes) with an already infected individual, unsterile tattoo or body piercing equipment, and sharing equipment used for injection drug use. As mentioned, hepatitis B is often spread through human-to-human contact; however, it is important to note that it cannot be passed to someone through hugging, kissing, shaking hands, or being in the presence of an infected individual who has sneezed or coughed.
Symptoms of hepatitis B are very similar to that of hepatitis A and include things like fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, pale stools and dark urine. However, as many as half of those infected with hepatitis B may not even know they have it until their liver is already damaged, which is why it’s crucial to take precautions if you think you might be susceptible to developing HBV. You can reduce the risk of developing hepatitis B by practicing safer sex, avoiding sharing needles and syringes (or other illicit drug use equipment), and wearing latex gloves if you are going to come into contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected individual. Typically, someone infected with HBV will clear the virus on their own within 6 months. However, you can also be a chronic carrier of the virus and may need to be monitored regularly by your physician in order to keep an eye on your liver and determine what type of treatment is right for you – including getting vaccinated against the disease. Whether you have been diagnosed with acute or chronic HBV, it’s important that you never donate any blood, organs tissue or semen, and ensure that your sexual partners are tested for HBV and get immunized if they are at risk. Open wounds on the skin should also be kept covered.
Similar to hepatitis B, hepatitis C is often contracted through shared drug paraphernalia and/or when the blood from an infected individual enters into the bloodstream of someone who’s not yet infected with the virus. However, unlike hepatitis B, which can be both acute and/or chronic, hepatitis C is known to be more of a chronic condition, and may lead to fibrosis and cirrhosis of the liver, which can also ultimately lead to liver cancer. Hepatitis C is treated using antiviral drugs with the focus being on treating the symptoms and preventing the disease from spreading, as well as preventing complications from arising. If you have hepatitis C beyond 6 months, a combination of drugs will sometimes be used.