Hepatitis A, B, C, and D
Viruses that attack the liver are called hepatitis viruses. Many illnesses and conditions can cause inflammation of the liver, but certain viruses cause about half of all cases of hepatitis. Those at risk for viral hepatitis include health care workers, people with multiple sexual partners, intravenous drug users, and hemophiliacs. In rare cases, blood transfusions can transfer hepatitis. All hepatitis viruses can cause acute hepatitis. The symptoms of acute viral hepatitis include fatigue, dark urine, fever, jaundice and flu-like symptoms. Hepatitis B and C can also cause chronic hepatitis.
The hepatitis caused by hepatitis A is an acute illness that never becomes chronic. Hepatitis A used to be known as “infectious hepatitis” because it could be spread from person to person like other viral infections. You can be infected by hepatitis A by ingesting contaminated food or water. This is especially true when unsanitary conditions allow water or food to be contaminated by human waste containing hepatitis A. In a household setting, hepatitis A can be spread through intimate kissing or stool (poor hand washing). It is also commonly spread to customers at restaurants and among children in day care facilities if sanitary practices are not employed.
Hepatitis B was once known as “serum hepatitis” because it was once thought that the only way to spread it was through blood or serum (the liquid part of blood). It is now known that hepatitis B can also be spread through sexual contact, sharing needles, accidental needle sticks, blood transfusions, hemodialysis, and by infected mothers to their newborns. The infection can also be spread by tattooing, body piercing, and sharing razors and toothbrushes. About ten percent of people with hepatitis B develop chronic hepatitis. Patients with chronic HBV infection can infect others as long as they are infected (chronic hepatitis b can last six months to several decades) and also are at risk of developing cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.
Hepatitis C is the most common chronic blood-borne infection in the United States. Hepatitis C and drug abuse are closely linked as it is usually spread by shared needles among drug abusers, blood transfusion, hemodialysis, and needle sticks. Transmission of the virus through sexual contact is possible, but it is rare. Most people (50-70 percent) with hepatitis C develop a chronic infection. People with chronic hepatitis C continue to infect others and are at risk for developing cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer.
Hepatitis D is also known as the delta virus. It is as small virus that requires concomitant infection with hepatitis B to survive. It cannot survive on its own because it needs a protein that is supplied by the hepatitis B virus to be able to infect liver cells. Hepatitis D is spread through sharing needles, contaminated blood and by sexual contact. Since you must either have hepatitis B to contract hepatitis D or be infected by both at the same time, the hepatitis B vaccine protects against both viruses. Patients with chronic hepatitis due to HBV and HDV develop cirrhosis rapidly and the combination is more difficult to treat.
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