Do you dream of taking an African safari, a trek in the Himalaya mountains, or a junk ride down a river in China? Do you plan a career in medicine? Do you eat oysters or dine in restaurants? Do you want a tattoo or pierced ears? If you answer yes to any of the questions, there’s something you should know. These diverse activities carry a common risk — hepatitis.
“Hepatitis” refers to any inflammation of the liver. Overdoses of alcohol, drugs, or toxic chemicals can cause hepatitis, but usually it stems from a viral infection. According to the EHealthInstitute, At least 70,000 cases of viral hepatitis are reported in the United States every year, and the disease is even more widespread abroad, especially in underdeveloped countries with poor sanitation.
The Virus Invades
Hepatitis takes various forms, depending upon which virus has invaded. Viruses, nature’s muggers, sneak into the body and head straight for a target, where they overwhelm cells in order to reproduce. Viruses produce antigens. The immune system senses these heavy molecules and sounds the alarm, sending out antibodies to destroy the strangers.
While this battle rages, a person experiences symptoms similar to the flu: extreme tiredness, mild fever, muscle aches, vomiting, loss of appetite, a bitter taste in the mouth. Sometimes, doctors mistake hepatitis for another viral sickness, such as mononucleosis (mono), which leaves many teens fatigued. But not for long. A swollen, tender liver and spleen; darkened urine; and jaundice (yellowish of the skin and eyes) all point to hepatitis. A blood test usually confirms the diagnosis.
Hepatitis sufferers may feel awful, but most of the time they recover fully from this serious disease, with no long-term liver damage. Treatment consists of letting the infection run its course. Although researchers are investigating the effectiveness of using interferon to boost the immune response in persons with chronic hepatitis, most doctors recommend avoiding medication–and alcohol.
Why this? The liver, which filters the blood and eliminates poisons, needs time off. Jaundice is a signal that ailing cells can’t keep up with their chores, such as disposing of the yellowish-red pigment bilirubin produced during the breakdown of old red blood cells in the liver. Time and rest let the body heat itself. Between nausea and diarrhea, hepatitis sufferers sometimes lose five to 10 pounds in the two to 12 weeks of their illness, so drinking lots of juice or broth and eating well whenever they can (usually breakfast goes down the best) also speeds recovery. Fortunately, the liver is like a salamander, able to regenerate damaged tissue.
ABCs of the Virus
So far, microbiologists have identified five distinct hepatitis viruses.
* Hepatitis A (once called infectious hepatitis): Roughly one out of every 250 Americans contracts hepatitis A at least once. It tends to strike children and teens most frequently, particularly in the fall and winter. The virus leaves an infected body through feces. Improperly dumped sewage can contaminate shellfish, such as mussels and oysters, or drinking water. Sometimes the sick or those who care for them may spread minute amounts of the virus. Unsterilized needles and infected blood may also transmit it. It’s very contagious, especially in the two weeks it incubates unnoticed within the body.
Symptoms erupt suddenly, but most young people feel less ill than adults. A mild childhood bout with the virus may build up a stockpile of antibodies, watchdogs against future infections. And there’s more good news: At least 90 percent of hepatitis A patients recover completely.
* Hepatitis B (once called serum hepatitis): This virus, usually harbored in blood or semen, afflicts half as many people as hepatitis A but has twice as many ill effects. Transfusions and contaminated needles or unsterilized surgical/dental tools transmit the virus. Although it doesn’t single out any age group, it’s tough on infants, who may contract the infection in the womb from their mothers, and young people with other health problems, such as kidney failure and Down syndrome. Doctors, nurses, and lab technicians handling blood often contract hepatitis B because of accidental punctures from infected needles.
If the immune system can’t get rid of the virus within about six months, the case of hepatitis is labeled chronic. Sometimes, the body beats the bug; other times, it hangs around for years, disabling the liver or even scarring it (cirrhosis). Chronic hepatitis develops in 5 percent to 10 percent of hepatitis B patients.
* Hepatitis C (once called non-A, non-B hepatitis): Not as much is known about this virus, more severe than A but less than B. Like B, however, it may persist as chronic hepatitis. The virus spreads through blood and contaminated needles. Because of AIDS and hepatitis, blood banks have beefed up their screening of donors, including testing blood for liver function and hepatitis B. This scrutiny has reduced the rate of transfusion-borne hepatitis C by 50 percent.
* Hepatitis D (once called delta hepatitis): This virus thrives as a sidekick: It strikes only those infected with hepatitis B, particularly intravenous drug users. Scientists are very curious about it, because its method of reproduction is similar to that of the virus that causes AIDS.
* Hepatitis E (once called enteric hepatitis): This virus, found in the Indian Ocean area, resembles hepatitis A.
Antibodies to the Rescue
Soap and water go a long way toward preventing the spread of hepatitis. Always wash your hands after digging in the dirt (perhaps contaminated by animal or human feces) and going to the bathroom. If someone in the house comes down with hepatitis, dishes need careful scrubbing and hot water rinses. Screening for hepatitis B has improved the purity of the blood supply. There is an expensive hepatitis B vaccine in use, too, mostly among health workers.
An injection of gamma globulin — the antibody-rich fluid skimmed from blood — near the time of exposure to hepatitis A fortifies the body’s immune defenses, warding off or lessening the severity of an infection. A more potent globulin is needed for hepatitis B. Neither, however, does any good after symptoms appear. Travelers to Third World countries often get a gamma globulin shot before departure. As a further precaution they should be prepared to buy bottled water or carry purification kits.
A shot is a small pain compared to the discomfort of hepatitis. You could say it’s like a reputation –a lot easier to get than to get rid of!