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Education, healthy liver can help keep hepatitis at bay

Tue., May 8, 2012

Hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver, can be caused by autoimmune disease, alcohol consumption, high doses of some drugs and medications (including acetaminophen and ibuprofen), and infections from viruses, bacteria or parasites. Its symptoms include dark urine, jaundice, fatigue, itching, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and weight loss.

Viral infection is the most common cause of hepatitis. The five known types of viral hepatitis are distinguished using the letters A, B, C, D and E. In the United States, hepatitis A, B and C are the most common. We have effective vaccinations against both A and B. Unfortunately, there is not yet a vaccine to protect against hepatitis C.

Hepatitis A virus causes acute, serious illness and is spread through the feces of infected people, which can contaminate food and water. Practice good hygiene, such as frequently washing your hands, to avoid catching or spreading HAV. Sometimes a person has hepatitis A and no symptoms, making it more likely they will spread the disease.

You sometimes hear of HAV caused by an infected food handler at a restaurant or an infected food source. When this happens, health officials encourage those exposed to get the hepatitis A vaccine within two weeks of exposure. Physicians also recommend it if you plan to travel to countries where HAV is common, and for child care workers. Hepatitis A vaccine is a routine childhood vaccine in the United States. Check with your health care provider for more information about vaccinating your children.

Hepatitis B virus can cause either acute or chronic illness. Chronic hepatitis B can cause cancer. HBV is spread through contact with body fluids such as blood or semen. This may happen by having sex with an infected person; sharing razors, toothbrushes or syringes with an infected person; or contact with blood, open sores or contaminated needles or other sharp objects. There are treatments for chronic HBV, but no permanent and complete cure.

It may be possible to prevent hepatitis B infection by avoiding the above situations, but the hepatitis B vaccine is the best way.

Infant vaccination against HBV began in Alaska in the 1980s. When I worked in Alaska, I saw the positive impact the hepatitis A and B vaccines were making on the health and well-being of the people there. Today, the vaccine (shown to be at least 95 percent effective) is routinely given to children throughout our country.

Hepatitis C virus also causes acute and/or chronic illness, which may result in cancer or liver failure. HCV is spread through contact with blood. The situations listed above for HBV infection also apply to HCV, however blood needs to be involved to spread the virus. There is treatment available for the chronic disease that can be caused by this virus, but there is not a complete cure for it either.

Fever and abdominal pain are common symptoms of hepatitis, but you should consult your health care provider before taking pain relievers, fever reducers or any other medications if you have hepatitis. Anyone with hepatitis or other liver disease should avoid drinking alcohol. The liver is already stressed, and what is normally safe could be harmful.

Someday, viral hepatitis may be eradicated, but for now education and prevention are our best tools to keep our livers healthy.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your comments and column suggestions to

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