The month of May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, which is a month-long campaign set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help raise awareness for everyone. According to the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services, there are potentially millions of people in the United States who have some type of viral hepatitis, and yet, many of them have no idea they've been infected.
What Is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is a viral infection that causes severe inflammation of the liver. There are three most common forms of hepatitis, which are hepatitis A, B, and C. Each of these types affects the body in a different way and can involve different symptoms.
Hepatitis A is preventable with vaccinations, but many people do not get vaccinated, and there has been a recent uptick in hepatitis A outbreaks in the U.S. Most people who do contract the virus recover fully, but the easy contraction of the illness makes it easy to spread. Hepatitis A is highly contagious and is spread by coming in contact with the stool or blood of someone infected.
The hepatitis B vaccine is widely available now and usually recommended for infants soon after they are born, but it was not always as readily available. Therefore, there are many people who have been infected with hepatitis B as adults. It is estimated that at least 850,000 people are living with the hepatitis B virus in this country. However, 67 percent of people who do have this form of hepatitis do not know they are infected.
It is estimated that there are 3.5 million people in the U.S. living with hepatitis C, but there are some studies that suggest these numbers could be much higher since the virus is so underreported and undiagnosed. This form of hepatitis is actually curable with oral medications and a treatment period of 8 to 12 weeks. Roughly half of the people with hepatitis C are unaware that they have the virus, and the majority of cases are found in people born between 1945 and 1965. Additionally, most people who become infected have a history of IV drug use.
Know Your Risks of Contracting Hepatitis
There are select groups of people who are a higher risk of contracting some form of hepatitis virus, and those who are in these groups should be tested by a healthcare professional on a regular basis. Each form of hepatitis is commonly contracted in different ways, which means varied individuals can be at risk unknowingly. Some of the most common risks include:
- Traveling to certain international locations
- Using IV drugs, sharing needles, or using old needles
- Getting tattoos or body piercings from an unlicensed place
- Having unprotected sex or oral sex
- Having little access to hand washing facilities or sanitation (such as homeless individuals)
- Living in close contact with someone with hepatitis
Even though none of these things definitely mean you will contract hepatitis, they do drastically up your risks. Talk to a medical professional if you think you are at risk and consider getting tested.
Symptoms of Hepatitis Viruses
Every form of hepatitis will come along with different symptoms, and sometimes, there are few symptoms at all. Keep in mind that symptoms often show up long after contraction as well. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Fatigue or general weakness
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of eyes)
- Darker urine than usual
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Hepatitis, in all forms, is a treatable virus. However, left untreated, the virus can become chronic and can cause severe liver damage. Hepatitis Awareness Month is all about getting the public to recognize their risks, so if you believe you could be at risk, talk to your doctor, get tested, and consider getting vaccines that are available.