Hepatitis is an inflammatory condition of the liver that can arise from various factors, including viral infections and certain lifestyle choices, like excessive alcohol consumption and misuse of medications. The liver is an essential organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood, and protects the body from infections. But when the liver becomes inflamed and damaged, this can affect how it functions, causing other severe health complications.
The World Health Organization states that 354 million live with chronic hepatitis B and C. They also found that an estimated 4.5 million premature fatalities could be prevented if those at high risk could get vaccinated for hepatitis. To learn more about hepatitis, we give you further insight into the different types, the symptoms, and how you can prevent it from happening to you.
Understanding hepatitis and its types
The three most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
1. Hepatitis A
Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV) and is usually transmitted through contaminated food or water. This type of hepatitis is considered an acute, short-term disease. It typically lasts from a few weeks to several months.
2. Hepatitis B
According to SingHealth, hepatitis B is the most common viral hepatitis in Singapore. This type of hepatitis is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and is primarily transmitted through contact with infected body fluids, including blood, semen, and vaginal fluids. Specifically, it can be transmitted by:
- birth to an infected pregnant person
- having intercourse with an infected person
- sharing equipment that has been contaminated with blood from an infected person, like needles, syringes, and other medical equipment
- sharing personal items, like razors and toothbrushes
Hepatitis B can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious lifelong chronic condition. When hepatitis B is not diagnosed and managed properly, it can potentially lead to liver cancer.
3. Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and is mainly transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. This is commonly spread through the following:
- sharing equipment from an infected equipment
- unregulated tattoos or body piercings
- sexual contact with a person with HCV
- birth from an infected person
SingHealth reports that it is commonly transmitted by needles and transfusion of infected blood products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis C can range from mild illness, lasting a few weeks, to a serious, life-long chronic infection. However, 95% of cases are curable. When it is not managed well, it could also lead to liver complications and cancer.
Causes of non-infectious hepatitis
In some cases, other factors can cause hepatitis, including alcohol, toxins, and autoimmune response. Excess alcohol consumption can cause liver damage and inflammation by directly injuring the cells of your liver. As a result, this leads to the thickening or scarring of the liver tissue and liver failure. This is also the case when you misuse prescription and over-the-counter medications.
Should the cause be an autoimmune system response, this happens when the immune system mistakes the liver as harmful and attacks it. This can result in ongoing inflammation ranging from mild to severe, compromising your liver function.
Symptoms of hepatitis
Signs and symptoms will depend on the type of hepatitis you have. Here are the symptoms you should watch out for:
Symptoms of hepatitis A
Hepatitis A symptoms usually manifest a few weeks after contracting the virus. But know that not everyone with HAV will have symptoms. If it does appear, it presents in the form of:
- Unusual fatigue and weakness
- Abrupt episodes of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea
- Abdominal pain or uneasiness, particularly on the upper right side beneath the lower ribs, where the liver is located
- Stool appearing clay-coloured or grey
- Loss of appetite
- Experiencing a low-grade fever
- Dark-coloured urine
- Joint pain
- Jaundice, evident by yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
- Intense itching sensation on the skin
Symptoms of hepatitis B
Hepatitis B symptoms can range from mild to severe and usually appear about 1 to 4 months after you’ve been infected. However, you may not even have any symptoms. But when it does appear, it may show as:
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakness and fatigue
- Jaundice, characterised by the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
Symptoms of hepatitis C
Chronic hepatitis C may not show signs or symptoms for many years until the virus damages the liver enough to cause liver disease. When this happens, symptoms would include:
- Increased tendency to bleed and bruise
- Dark-coloured urine
- Itchy skin
- Reduced appetite
- Jaundice, leading to yellowing of the skin and eyes
- Accumulation of fluid in the abdomen (ascites)
- Swelling in the legs
- Unintended weight loss
- Experiencing confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Spider-like blood vessels visible on the skin (spider angiomas)
How to prevent hepatitis
Prevention is indeed the best approach to hepatitis, as it can spare individuals from potential suffering and long-term complications. You can protect yourself and your loved ones from this potentially life-altering disease by taking proactive steps. Here are some more in-depth insights into preventive measures for hepatitis:
1. Vaccination for hepatitis A and B
One of the most effective ways to guard against hepatitis is through vaccination. Vaccines are readily available for hepatitis A and B and offer robust protection against these viruses. These vaccines provide immunity against the virus responsible for the disease, reducing the risk of infection. Getting vaccinated is especially important if you are planning to travel. To learn more, check out our guide on five important travel vaccinations.
2. Ensuring family immunisation
While focusing on individual immunisation is essential, safeguarding your family’s health is equally crucial. Ensuring all family members, including children and adults, are up-to-date with their hepatitis vaccinations helps create a collective shield of protection against these viral infections.
3. Safe hygiene practices
Good personal hygiene is critical in preventing hepatitis A. Washing hands thoroughly with soap and clean water, especially before eating or after using the restroom, can significantly reduce the risk of contracting the virus from contaminated surfaces or food items.
4. Mindful food and drink handling
Practising caution while handling food and drinks is vital to prevent hepatitis A. Ensuring your food is properly cooked and sourced from hygienic establishments can minimise the risk of infection. Additionally, avoiding raw or undercooked shellfish and maintaining proper food storage practices are essential preventive measures.
5. Safe sexual practices
Engaging in safe sexual practices, such as using condoms consistently and correctly, can substantially reduce the risk of hepatitis B transmission during sexual activity. It is especially essential for those who have multiple sexual partners or engage in high-risk behaviours.
6. Avoiding sharing personal items
Hepatitis B and C are primarily transmitted through contact with infected blood or bodily fluids. Refraining from sharing personal items such as needles, razors, toothbrushes, or anything that might carry infected fluids helps minimise the risk of transmission.
7. Regular screenings
If you believe you are at risk of hepatitis B or C due to certain lifestyle choices, travel history, or potential exposure, you should undergo regular health screenings. Early detection of hepatitis enables timely intervention and can prevent the progression of the disease to chronic conditions, reducing the risk of severe liver damage.
Choose the right private primary care doctor
As a trusted private primary care doctor in Singapore, Osler Health is dedicated to promoting your overall health and well-being. We have private doctors who are committed to providing you with comprehensive care and personalised attention. We understand the importance of timely diagnosis and proactive management of hepatitis. With our facilities and medical expertise, you can count on Osler Health to support you through prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Make an appointment with our healthcare professionals today.