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Hepatitis Alphabet Soup

You may have heard about a recent outbreak of Hepatitis A, linked to organic strawberries imported from Mexico and sold throughout the US.  Fortunately no one has died from this outbreak but several people were hospitalized from the infection.  You may have wondered, what is the difference between Hepatitis A, B, and C and how do people become infected? Let me try to help answer your questions.

What is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver.  The liver is a vital organ that has many responsibilities including:

  • Metabolizes drugs and the food we eat
  • Stores vitamins and minerals
  • Creates protein and clotting factors
  • Filters the blood
  • Fights infections

We can’t live without our liver, so when it’s damaged by heavy alcohol use or a viral infection, hepatitis can occur and affect how our liver functions.

How Many Types of Hepatitis Are There?

There are three main types of hepatitis in the United States–Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C.  Two other types are also seen around the world, Hepatitis D and Hepatitis E, but these are not as prevalent here compared to other countries.  Only two types of hepatitis have vaccines available–Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is spread when someone ingests food or drinks contaminated with fecal matter.  It’s common in many countries that don’t have proper sanitation or clean water.  The infection can last several weeks to a few months and most people recover with no lasting liver damage.  As children we receive a 2-dose regimen of Hepatitis A vaccine to help prevent this infection. A booster can be given as an adult if someone is at increased risk for infection which would include HIV, chronic liver disease, illicit drug use, or working in a country with high rates of type A. No testing is available for this type.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a leading cause of liver cancer, and most people who have it don’t even know they are infected.  It can be a serious life-long disease.  It’s usually spread through blood, semen or other bodily fluids from an infected person. Sharing needles, razors, and toothbrushes can transmit the disease.  Mothers can infect their babies when they are born, and having sex with an infected person can be a common way the infection spreads. Since there is a vaccine available for this type, it’s also recommended for all children as a 3 dose series.  Testing is recommended for people at high risk.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is also a leading cause of liver cancer.  It’s transmitted by infected blood.  Before 1992 when blood transfusions were not screened for this virus, people getting transfusions were at risk of developing Hepatitis C. Now donated blood is checked for the virus. Infected mothers can transmit it to their babies upon birth. There isn’t a vaccine for type C, but there are some oral medication therapies now available to help treat and cure this when it becomes a chronic infection. The treatment usually includes an 8-12 week course of medication and it’s 90% effective. Testing is also available and includes the same group of people at high risk for Hepatitis B, including people who may have had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992.

Know the Signs of Hepatitis

Symptoms for all types of hepatitis are similar, which can include light-colored stools and dark urine, nausea and vomiting, fever, loss of appetite, fatigue, and joint pain. Symptoms can take a long time to develop after exposure. Many people infected don’t know they have this condition until several weeks, months, or years afterward.

Take Action, Get Vaccinated

So how do you prevent a hepatitis infection?  Get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B if you haven’t been vaccinated as a child or if you are in a high risk category.  Wash produce before you eat it. Wash your hands often with soap and water.  Use a condom during sex.  Take precautions when getting tattoos or piercings.  If you’re traveling to a high risk area of the world, consider getting an additional vaccination.

Talk to your CHI Health Primary Care Provider or Pharmacist about these or any other vaccinations–we want to keep you healthy!

Ann Thompson, RP, BCACP
Ann Thompson, RP, BCACP

Ann Thompson has been a pharmacist with CHI Health for 23 years, and is currently the CHI Health Retail Pharmacy manager. She has a board certification in Ambulatory Care, and loves working with patients and helping them manage their medications and overall health. In her spare time, she enjoys exercising, trying new healthy recipes, and spending time outdoors.

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