After the skin, the liver is the body’s second largest organ. It is situated on the right-hand side of the stomach and has around 500 functions, the most important of which is to detoxify the body.
Largely spread by viruses
The word hepatitis is made up of “hepar”, the Greek word for liver, plus the Latin suffix “itis” which means inflammation. Hepatitis therefore means inflammation of the liver. It can heal on its own, or progress to fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis or even liver cancer and eventually death.
The condition is most commonly spread by viruses, but can also be caused by other infective agents, as well as toxic substances (e.g. alcohol, drugs) and autoimmune diseases.
There are five main hepatitis viruses, types A, B, C, D and E. The most serious types are A, B and C.
Hepatitis A is mainly spread through food and drink, hepatitis B by means of sexual contact, and hepatitis C through blood (for example when people share drug needles).
Hepatitis B is therefore the only form that is mainly spread through sexual contact.
Facts about hepatitis B
1. About 1.2 million people in the United States and 350 million people worldwide are currently infected with Hepatitis B, according to CDC. Most of them have few or no symptoms and are unaware of their infection.
2. Hepatitis B can be acute or chronic. Approximately 95 percent of adults will recover within 6 months of becoming infected with hepatitis B (acute form) and about 5 percent will end up being chronically infected.
3. Other causes of hepatitis B (besides sex) are sharing needles or syringes, or direct contact with the blood or sores of an infected person. A mother with hepatitis B can also pass it onto her baby during birth.
Hepatitis B cannot be spread by hugging, kissing or shaking hands or sneezing or coughing. It's unlikely to be spread by breastfeeding and isn't found in food or water.
4. Hepatitis B can be asymptomatic (without symptoms), but the virus can still be found in the blood. In fact, symptoms can take up to 30 years to develop. Damage can however quietly occur during this time.
Up to 25 percent of people with chronic hepatitis B can develop:
- Liver damage
- Liver failure
- Liver cancer
When symptoms finally appear, they are often signs of advanced liver disease, and every year according to CDC approximately 3 000 people in the United States and more than 600 000 people worldwide die from Hepatitis B-related liver disease.
5. Hepatitis B is diagnosed by one or more blood tests. A blood test will check for the presence of antibodies. More tests might be required later to check for complications, and that you haven’t progressed from acute to chronic hepatitis, as symptoms are often vague or entirely absent.
6. Treatment for hepatitis B depends on whether it is acute or chronic. Acute hepatitis B might resolve itself without any treatment. Treatments for chronic cases on the other hand include:
- Antiviral medications. A number of antiviral medications can help fight the virus and slow its ability to damage your liver.
- Interferon alfa-2b (Intron A). This is a synthetic version of a substance produced by the body to fight infection.
- A liver transplant, which is an option if your liver has been severely damaged.
8. The most effective way to prevent hepatitis B is to get vaccinated. The vaccine is safe and effective and is usually given as 3-4 shots over six months. Infants get their first shot at birth; children younger than 19 who didn’t get the vaccine as infants should also be vaccinated; as should adults who are at risk for hepatitis B.
Alternatively, to avoid contracting hepatitis B, one should steer clear of blood or bodily fluids of others by:
- Practising safe sex
- Not sharing personal items, such as razors or toothbrushes
- Not sharing drug needles or other drug paraphernalia
- Cleaning and disinfecting blood spills
- Being careful when getting tattoos and body piercings
CDC: Hepatitis B Are You at Risk? http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/pdfs/hepbatrisk.pdf
Healthline: Hepatitis. http://www.healthline.com/health/hepatitis#Overview1
MNT: Hepatitis: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/145869.php
MedicineNet.com: Hepatitis B. http://www.medicinenet.com/hepatitis_b/article.htm
Public Health Agency of Canada: Hepatitis B – Get the Facts. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/hcai-iamss/bbp-pts/hepatitis/hep_b-eng.php
Medline Plus: Preventing hepatitis B or C. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000401.htm