Millions of Americans live with viral hepatitis – many of them may not even know that they have it. Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, and viral hepatitis refers to a few specific viruses that primarily attack the liver.
A person can have a viral hepatitis and live without symptoms for decades. In fact, approximately 65 to 75 percent of infected Americans are unaware that they are affected by viral hepatitis and go untreated, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This is dangerous because a person may spread the disease, or the disease may progress and cause serious and sometimes fatal damage to a person’s health through chronic liver disease, cirrhosis or liver cancer. Viral hepatitis is a leading infectious cause of death, claiming the lives of 12,000–18,000 Americans each year, according to HHS.
An estimated 3.5 – 5.3 million persons are living with viral hepatitis in the United States — many of whom do not know their status — and millions more are at risk for infection. – HHS
The Major Forms of the Disease
There are various forms of viral hepatitis, but the three major forms are Hepatitis A (HAV), Hepatitis B (HBV), and Hepatitis C (HCV).
Hepatitis A (HAV) is the most easily spread of the hepatitis viruses, and is sometimes referred to as the contagious hepatitis. Infection with HAV is acute, not chronic. It can be spread through food or water, especially where conditions become unsanitary and contamination of food and water with human waste may occur. HAV is typically spread among household members, and close contact through oral secretions (intimate kissing) or stool (poor hand washing). It also is possible to have infection spread to customers in restaurants, and among children and workers in day care centers if hand washing and sanitary precautions are not observed.
Hepatitis A rates in the United States have declined by 95 percent since a Hepatitis A vaccine first became available in 1995, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some people, particularly young children, are asymptomatic when it comes to HAV. However, symptoms usually occur abruptly and can include: fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, dark urine, joint pain and jaundice.
For those at risk, vaccination is the best way to prevent HAV. Good hygiene is also important in preventing the spread of disease. Learn more from the CDC’s website section on Hepatitis A or talk to your health care provider if you have concerns.
Hepatitis B (HBV) is spread through direct contact with infected blood, semen, vaginal fluid or saliva. It is transmitted primarily through sexual contact. HBV can also be spread by the use of shared needles in drug abusers, accidental needle sticks with needles contaminated with infected blood, blood transfusions, and by infected mothers to their newborns. Further, the infection can be spread by tattooing, body piercing, and sharing razors and toothbrushes (if there is contamination with infected blood). It can be chronic or acute.
The rate of new HBV infections has declined by approximately 82 percent since 1991, when a national strategy to eliminate HBV infection was implemented in the United States, according to the CDC. When present, symptoms can include: fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, dark urine, joint pain and jaundice. People with chronic HBV may be asymptomatic or may have different symptoms or liver disease.
The best way to prevent HBV is through vaccination. Learn more from the CDC’s website section on Hepatitis B or talk to your health care provider if you have concerns.
Hepatitis C (HCV) is primarily transmitted by blood-to-blood contact, like shared needle use. HCV infection becomes chronic in approximately 75 to 85 percent of cases according to the CDC. If a person has chronic HCV, they are usually asymptomatic, but it can still result in chronic liver disease. When HCV is acute, symptoms can include: fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, dark urine, joint pain and jaundice.
No vaccine currently exists for HCV, but thanks to advances in prevention strategies, new infections with HCV in the U.S. are not common – most are attributed to shared needle use among drug abusers. You can prevent HCV by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease and by being cautious around blood. Learn more from the CDC’s website section on Hepatitis C or talk to your health care provider if you have concerns.