World Hepatitis Day, a day geared towards raising awareness about hepatitis B and C and encourage diagnosis and treatment, was just observed on July 28th. You may have noticed the graphics and news stories on social media. But in the busy modern world, it’s easy to have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude and not follow up on getting tested or seeking treatment. Consider this your reminder.
There are many different types of hepatitis — hepatitis A is primarily an acute viral illness that spreads through contaminated food or water and almost always goes away on its own. World Hepatitis Day focuses on the chronic viral forms of hepatitis: hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Hepatitis B is usually spread through contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person. It can be spread through intimate contact, but it is also possible to contract hepatitis B by sharing an infected person’s needles and syringes, razors, or toothbrush. And similar to HIV, an infected mother can potentially pass the infection along to her baby during birth. Many people’s bodies are able to defeat the infection shortly after it happens and clear the hepatitis virus from the body, but when it remains in the body long-term, it can start to cause serious consequences.
Hepatitis C is spread through infected blood, and it most frequently affects people who share needles for intravenous drugs, but it can also be transmitted by getting a tattoo or body piercing with an unsanitary needle. Like hepatitis B, it can also be transmitted from mother to baby during birth. Up to 25% who contract hepatitis C are able to defeat the virus after an acute infection, but for most people it stays in the body long-term.
It’s important to get tested for viral hepatitis because it can linger in your body undetected for many years before causing serious damage to your liver and increasing your risk for liver cancer. All it takes is a simple blood test to know if you have hepatitis and to determine which type.
If you test positive, you’ll want to consult a liver specialist to discuss your treatment options. You’ll also want to avoid sharing toothbrushes, razors, and nail clippers with friends or family members. You may be prescribed anti-viral medications, or your doctor may simply want to check you regularly for signs of liver damage. You’ll need to avoid alcohol, which can speed up liver damage.
Vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B. If you have hepatitis B, you may need to be vaccinated against hepatitis A, and anyone with hepatitis C should receive both vaccines. If your tests results are all negative, it might be a good idea to consider getting yourself and your family vaccinated to protect from future exposure, especially if you plan to travel outside the United States.