It may not be the most well known disease, but hepatitis is a significant health problem the world over. There are still widespread misconceptions about the disease, like it is always due to a viral infection. However, a better understanding of all types of hepatitis is one of the most important steps in reducing the transmission of the disease. Most can be easily prevented with simple measures while a few rare types are just unavoidable.
The liver is one of the vital organs of the body although most of us only think of the brain, heart and lungs in this light. In fact the liver is one of the most versatile and hard working organs. Everyday it is neutralizing toxins, assimilating and producing nutrients and plays a variety of other roles that makes life possible. It is a resilient organ that can withstand significant insults and even regenerate to a certain degree. But when irritated, injured or damaged, the functioning of the liver gradually decreases.
One of the major liver problems is hepatitis. It is often the prelude to more serious liver diseases that can be life threatening. It culminates in liver failure where the liver stops functioning to an adequate degree to maintain life. At this point a liver transplant is necessary or death is imminent. And all of this could have started from simply having drank contaminate water while on a holiday overseas in some developing country.
Knowing the facts about hepatitis is important in preventing it and getting the right treatment at the right time to minimize the risk of complications.
Hepatitis Is About The Liver
Many people who are aware of hepatitis do not fully understand what it means. Ask them what is hepatitis and you may get a mixed answer about a virus and the liver. The word ‘hepatitis’ simply means ‘liver inflammation’. The first part ‘hep-‘ means liver and the second part ‘-itis’ is used to describe inflammation of an organ. Hepatitis does not automatically mean viral hepatitis. It also does not state whether the problem is short lived (acute) or long term (chronic). Hepatitis does not mean guaranteed liver failure or death from liver problems. But it should always be seen and approached in a serious light.
Virus Not Necessary In Hepatitis
We all tend to think that the word hepatitis means viral hepatitis. But this is not true. Viral hepatitis is one of the many types of hepatitis and it is very common. The main viruses that cause hepatitis have a predilection for the liver. But the liver can also be injured and become inflamed through the action of chemicals. The misuse of prescription medication and alcohol abuse are some of the chemical causes of non-infectious hepatitis. Then there are environmental toxins. But even the body’s own immune system can turn against the liver and cause autoimmune hepatitis. Genetic abnormalities can lead to inherited types of hepatitis. All of these mechanisms can occur without any virus being present.
Many Viruses Can Cause Hepatitis
There are several types of viruses that specifically cause hepatitis. The most common are hepatitis A (HAV), B (HBV) and C (HCV). Lesser known viruses are D, E and G. There is also an open category, hepatitis X, which denotes an acute viral hepatitis that is not due to the other known types. But infectious hepatitis can occur without these hepatitis viruses. Some viral infections will affect the entire body and any organ may become inflamed, including the liver. Cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and herpes simplex virus (HSV) can also cause hepatitis although they do not have a predilection for the liver.
Hepatitis Not Always Deadly
Hepatitis can lead to life threatening complications if it is not detected early. Proper treatment and management can significantly minimize these complications. Some types of hepatitis are more likely to lead to serious complications, like chronic hepatitis where liver cirrhosis arises. Eventually there may be liver failure which requires a liver transplant for a person to continue living. But this is not guaranteed to occur with every type of hepatitis. Some are even reversible where the cause can be removed very early in the disease. However, it is essential to diagnose the cause of hepatitis before deciding on whether you have a more serious and irreversible type.
Vaccine Not 100% Protection
The hepatitis vaccine is effective only for viral hepatitis. It helps the immune system to learn how to combat the virus in the event of an infection. For the 3 main types of hepatitis virus there is only a vaccine for the A and B viruses. Research for a hepatitis C vaccine is ongoing but there is no suitable vaccine as yet. However, when it comes to other infectious and non-infectious types of hepatitis these vaccines are not effective. So you can still develop hepatitis through other means even if you had the hepatitis A and/or B vaccines. It is also possible to contract an infection of the virus you have been vaccinated against, although this is uncommon.
Sometimes No Hepatitis Symptoms
Fatigue, nausea, jaundice and abdominal discomfort are some of the common symptoms of all types of hepatitis. But it is possible to have hepatitis and have little to no symptoms for long periods initially. In fact you could have the hepatitis virus and be asymptomatic for years or even decades. Infection with hepatitis C is one such case. Most people who have this type of viral hepatitis do not have any symptoms. They could have contracted it in early adulthood and be relatively symptom free up to the senior years of life.
Lifestyle Can Prevent Hepatitis
Certain types of hepatitis like inherited and autoimmune varieties may not be preventable. But most types are and by simple lifestyle measures. Even viral hepatitis can be prevented to a large degree with lifestyle changes. The appropriate measures depends on the type of hepatitis in question. For example with alcoholic hepatitis the key is to abstain from alcohol or drink in moderation. With hepatitis A, it is about avoiding contaminated water particularly when traveling to countries with poor sanitation. Not sharing needles among IV drug users and using barrier contraceptives are ways to prevent hepatitis B and C. It is therefore important to known enough about hepatitis to avoid it, which often involves the same preventative measures that applies to many other types of diseases.