Understanding the Early Signs of Hepatitis
Hepatitis is an extremely serious inflammation of the liver that can be caused by a number of different viruses. Hepatitis is the overall condition, but it’s often subdivided into different forms, which are called hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E. The only difference between each form of hepatitis is the way that it spreads.
Hepatitis A and E are typically contracted by someone who is exposed to contaminated food or water. Hepatitis B can be spread through sexual contact and infected blood but can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy or childbirth. Hepatitis C, like hepatitis B, can be spread through infected blood. Finally, hepatitis D is the rarest form of hepatitis, because it can only affect people who already have hepatitis B. Of all these different forms, people can protect themselves from hepatitis A, B, and D with immunizations.
Why is it Important to Understand the Early Signs of Hepatitis?
It’s extremely important to catch hepatitis early on. Certain forms of hepatitis can be defeated, which allows the patient to make a full recovery and lead a normal life.
Each strain of hepatitis has its own rates of recovery. With hepatitis A, most people don’t get sick enough to visit a hospital since it typically doesn’t lead to long-term inflammation of the liver. People who have hepatitis B will become sick but have a good chance of eventually recovering. However, some infants and adults who contract hepatitis B will go on to become carriers of the virus, which means that they’re infectious even when their own symptoms are gone. Hepatitis C is similar to hepatitis B, in that people who contract it often don’t feel sick. However, it can sometimes lead to acute cirrhosis, which means that your liver will be permanently damaged.
Overall, more than 5.7 million people in the United States are living with some form of hepatitis. It’s difficult for researchers to calculate accurate numbers because many people who experience mild forms of hepatitis never become ill enough to seek treatment, so their case goes unreported. However, the complications can be severe. It’s estimated that between 350,000 and 500,000 people die from complications related to hepatitis C every year.1
Antiviral treatment can work very effectively. So, if this condition is caught early, doctors can prevent lifelong infection.
Early Signs of Hepatitis
There are many different ways to be exposed to various forms of hepatitis. Whether you contract it from a sexual partner or are unlucky enough to have been exposed to tainted food or water, it often takes weeks, months, or even years for symptoms to begin to present themselves.
In the case of hepatitis C, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 70 to 80 percent of people with acute hepatitis C don’t show any symptoms.2 If symptoms appear, they’re typically mild at the beginning and start with a fever, abdominal pain, and unusual bowel movements and urine. Someone who has acute hepatitis C may see their urine turn quite dark and their stool will turn from a regular healthy brown color to light brown or grey.
10 to 20 percent of people who develop acute hepatitis C will eventually develop cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is permanent scarring of the liver, which makes it difficult for the liver to function as it should. It’s very difficult to undo this damage. Some symptoms that you should watch out for include fatigue, easily bleeding or bruising, nausea, swelling in the legs, feet, and ankles, and a yellow discoloration in the skin and eyes, which is known as jaundice. If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to consult a doctor right away. Cirrhosis can contribute to a whole host of other fatal conditions, including bone disease, increased risk of liver cancer, hepatic encephalopathy (where toxins that weren’t cleared by the liver build up in the brain), and serious bacterial infections.3
If you have any of the above symptoms or believe that it’s possible that you could have been infected by a hepatitis virus, it’s important to see a doctor right away. They will be able to order an immediate blood test, which can quickly determine which type of hepatitis you have, and what stage it’s at. Currently, the CDC recommends hepatitis testing for a wide variety of patients who may be at risk, including anyone who has ever injected illegal drugs, anyone born between 1945 and 1965, children born to mothers with hepatitis C, and a whole host of others.
When you get tested for hepatitis C, the doctor will start with a hepatitis C antibody test, which tests if you’ve ever been infected by the virus. It will return one of two results. Non-reactive, or negative, means that either you have never been exposed to hepatitis C or have experienced a recent infection that’s too faint for the test to detect. A reactive, or positive, test result means that you have been exposed to hepatitis C, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are currently infected. A different test called a hepatitis C RNA test, confirms whether the virus is still present and active.4
If you have a current, active infection that is mild, your doctor will likely recommend bed rest, and ask that you drink lots of water and abstain from alcohol until your body recovers from the virus.
If you’ve had viral hepatitis C for more than six months, you will likely be placed on an antiviral regiment, which is taken for at least 12 and up to 24 weeks. The goal is to use the medications to clear the virus from your bloodstream, slow down inflammation, and reduce the scarring and cirrhosis so that the liver is protected. It’s important to take every dosage exactly as required.5
If your body does not respond to treatment or if your liver has been damaged beyond repair, you may be eligible for a liver transplant. These livers come from otherwise-healthy people who have recently died, but in rare circumstances, a living person may be able to donate a portion of their liver.6
Even though some people never show symptoms of hepatitis, it’s still important to understand how it can affect our overall health.
It’s easy to protect yourself by exercising basic precautions like avoiding unprotected sex and shared needles. It’s also vital to ensure that all your vaccinations are up to date, which can protect you from hepatitis A, B, and D. This will ensure that rates of infection stay low, so we can all live healthier lives.7