It's sneaky, it's silent, and it can permanently harm your liver. It's called hepatitis (say: heh-puh-TYE-tus). Some people have hepatitis for many years without knowing it and then discover they have liver damage because of it.
What Is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is an inflammation (say: in-fluh-MAY-shun) — a kind of irritation — or infection of the liver.
The liver, in the right side of the abdomen, is an important organ. It cleans out toxins (poisons) from your blood, makes an important digestive liquid called bile, keeps your body fueled up with just the right amount of glucose, regulates hormones, and other important jobs. If the liver is affected by or gets scarred from inflammation or infection, it can't effectively do all of its jobs.
Most cases of hepatitis are caused by a virus. The three most common hepatitis viruses are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
What Is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is contagious. The virus lives in poop (feces) from people who have the infection. That's why it's so important to wash your hands before eating and after going to the bathroom. If you don't, and then go make yourself a sandwich, hep A virus might end up on your food, and then in you! People who recover from hepatitis A have immunity to the virus and won't get it again.
The hepatitis A vaccine has made the infection less common in the United States and other developed countries. Getting vaccinated helps a person's body make antibodies that protect against hepatitis infection. The hepatitis A vaccine is given to all kids when they're between 1 and 2 years old, and to people who travel to countries where the virus could get into the food and water supply.
These steps also help keep people safe from hepatitis A:
- regular hand washing, especially after going to the bathroom or diapering a baby, and before eating
- washing fruits and vegetables before eating them
- not eating raw shellfish, such as raw oysters
What Are Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C?
Although hep A is a short-term illness that goes away completely, hepatitis B and hepatitis C can turn into serious long-term illnesses for some people. Teens and young adults are most at risk for getting these two viruses.
Hep B and C get passed from person to person the same ways that HIV does — through direct contact with infected body fluids. Sometimes moms with hep B or C pass the virus to their babies when they're born. Hep B and C also can get passed in ways you might not expect — such as getting a manicure or pedicure with unsterilized nail clippers or other dirty instruments. Getting a tattoo, if dirty needles are used, is another way someone can get hep B or C.
Today, all babies get vaccinated against the hepatitis B virus in a series of 3 shots over a 6-month period. Doctors also recommend "catch-up" vaccination for all kids and teens younger than 19 years old who didn't get the vaccine as babies or didn't get all 3 doses.
There's no vaccine for hep C yet.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Hepatitis?
Some people with hepatitis show no signs of having the disease. Others may have these symptoms:
- being extra tired
- flu-like symptoms — throwing up, feeling hot, etc.
- yellowing of skin and whites of eyes
- belly pain (especially on the upper right side)
- dark brown pee
- light-colored poop
- poor appetite for days in a row or weight loss
What Do Doctors Do?
A doctor who thinks someone may have hepatitis can order a blood test to see if it is hepatitis and which type, then help the person get the right care.
How Is Hepatitis Treated?
Someone who has hepatitis will need to drink lots of fluids, eat healthy foods, and get rest. The person's family members may need to get hepatitis vaccines, if they haven't already.
Later on, the person will get follow-up blood tests. Often the blood tests will show that the person no longer has hepatitis. Sometimes, the blood tests may show that someone is now a carrier of hepatitis — they won't have hepatitis symptoms, but could pass the infection to other people.
Sometimes, blood tests will continue to show that some people still have hep B or C, which means they may have chronic (long-lasting) hepatitis. If so, they will need to eat healthy foods and take very good care of themselves by getting rest and visiting the doctor regularly. In some cases, someone with chronic hepatitis may get special medicine for the condition.