Hepatitis: What is it?
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. It may be caused by viruses, drugs, alcohol, and some hereditary and immune problems.
Blood products are safer than ever
Due to major advances in vaccination and the development of highly accurate screening of blood products, it is now very rare for people in North America to become infected with hepatitis B virus from blood products following transfusion. This is also the case in other parts of the world where blood bank standards are followed.
The main hepatitis viruses are hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, and G.
Hepatitis B, C, D, and G are transmitted by blood and body fluids. This may happen in childbirth, in early infancy from breast-feeding, or through needle sharing or sexual contact. Blood transfusions can also cause these types of hepatitis. Hepatitis A and E are transmitted through ingestion of food or water contaminated with feces from an infected person.
Hepatitis A is a common source of epidemics, frequently contaminating water supplies in the developing world. Hepatitis A can be transmitted through contaminated feces and in restaurants where food preparers do not wash their hands sufficiently. Hepatitis A is completely preventable with a vaccine.
Hepatitis B is a highly infective virus that can cause an acute or chronic infection, which may lead to liver damage or liver cancer. It is transmitted through blood and body fluids. Fortunately there are vaccines available to help protect against Hepatitis B. It’s a good idea to get vaccinated, especially if you’re at a higher risk (people at higher risk include IV drug users who share needles and people who have unprotected sex with multiple partners).
Hepatitis C is very common, affecting 1% to 2% of the population. It is transmitted through blood and body fluids. Hepatitis C has received the most attention because of contaminated blood used for transfusions, but it is actually transmitted far more frequently through the use of intravenous drugs. Most people do not show any symptoms after infection, but 20% to 30% may have symptoms of liver inflammation (such as yellowing of the skin or eyes, abdominal pain, dark urine, fever, or loss of appetite). Of people with hepatitis C, 70% to 80% go on to develop a chronic infection, which may lead to liver damage or cancer.
Hepatitis D can only infect people who are already infected with the hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis D often makes hepatitis B more aggressive. The symptoms of hepatitis D are similar to those of hepatitis B. Hepatitis D is transmitted through blood and body fluids. There is no vaccine for hepatitis D, but being vaccinated against hepatitis B can also protect you from hepatitis D (because it can only infect those who already have hepatitis B).
Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A. It is found in developing countries. Symptoms of liver damage usually appear within 2 weeks to 2 months of exposure. Symptoms become more severe with age. Usually, the body can fight hepatitis E infection on its own. Symptoms include yellow eyes and skin, abdominal pain, fever, and loss of appetite. Hepatitis E does not cause chronic infection or long-term liver damage. There are no vaccines or drug treatments for hepatitis E.
Hepatitis G is a recently discovered virus that is found in about 2% to 5% of the population. There are usually no symptoms. It is transmitted through blood and body fluids. It is often found in people who are also infected with hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV. Of those infected, 15% to 30% will have a chronic (long-term) infection. At this point, it is not known whether hepatitis G infection can cause liver damage. So far, there is little evidence to suggest that it does. There is currently no treatment for hepatitis G infection.