10 Facts About Hepatitis

iStock.com/Hailshadow
iStock.com/Hailshadow

Even if you've been vaccinated against it, you may have a lot of unanswered questions about hepatitis. The condition, which is characterized by inflamed liver tissue, can be caused by a variety of factors, including viruses, an overactive immune system, and alcohol abuse. Hepatitis symptoms also vary widely, from a flu-like feeling that clears up in a few weeks to liver failure. Here are some facts worth knowing about every type of hepatitis—including the most common types, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

1. There are five types of viral hepatitis.

Every case of hepatitis is characterized by inflammation of the liver tissue. When looking at viral hepatitis specifically, the treatments, modes of transmission, and duration of symptoms vary from according to which virus strain is causing it. Hepatitis A is an acute illness that often goes away on its own over time. It spreads primarily via the oral-fecal route, usually when someone ingests food or water contaminated with the hepatitis A virus. The second type, hepatitis B, can be either acute or chronic, and it spreads through bodily fluids like blood and semen. Hepatitis C mainly spreads through blood and is most likely to develop into a chronic condition.

The fourth and fifth types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis D and E, though they aren’t talked about much in the U.S. Like hepatitis A, hepatitis E is mostly spread through oral-fecal contamination. Hepatitis D can only be contracted if the patient has already had hepatitis B. Both types are less common in the U.S. compared to countries that lack access to clean drinking water.

2. Non-viral hepatitis can be caused by alcohol and other factors.

Catching a virus isn’t the only way to contract hepatitis. Even if you’re up-to-date on your shots and practice good hygiene, you can get it from exposure to toxic chemicals, taking prescriptions or over-the-counter-drugs, or abusing alcohol. All of these conditions are known as toxic hepatitis. There’s also autoimmune hepatitis, which occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the liver and treats it like a hostile invader. Doctors aren’t entirely sure why this happens, but it’s more common in people with a history of infections or other immune diseases.

3. Chronic hepatitis may not show any symptoms.

Chronic hepatitis is diagnosed when the condition lasts longer than six months. Sometimes it develops following a bout of acute hepatitis, but more often it’s asymptomatic. Vague signs of this form of hepatitis may include malaise, fatigue, and nonspecific upper abdominal discomfort. It’s under-diagnosed, but if patients suspect they have hepatitis symptoms, they can get a liver function test, a viral serologic test, or other blood work done to confirm it’s there.

4. Yellow eyes and skin are common symptoms of acute hepatitis.

Unlike chronic hepatitis, acute hepatitis quickly presents clear signs. These include pale stool, dark urine, fatigue, loss of appetite, and flu-like symptoms. One of the tell-tale symptoms of hepatitis is jaundice, which is characterized by yellowish skin or eyes. This occurs when bilirubin, an orange-colored waste material produced by the normal breakdown of red blood cells, builds up in the blood because the liver isn’t functioning properly.

5. Some types of hepatitis can be prevented with vaccines.

Hepatitis types A and B can both be protected against with vaccines. The hepatitis A vaccine is administered in two doses six to 18 months apart and the hepatitis vaccine is doled out in three shots over six months. Cases of hepatitis B in the U.S. have dropped by as much as 73 percent since the vaccine was first introduced in the 1980s and hepatitis A cases have declined by 95 percent in the same time period.

6. There's no vaccine for Hepatitis C—but doctors are working on it.

Hepatitis C is the most common form of viral hepatitis, but there's still no vaccine for it. Scientists have identified at least six genetically distinct types of the virus, and about 50 different subtypes. This makes it difficult to develop a one-size-fits-all vaccine for hepatitis C, but medical experts have been working on one since the disease was first detected 25 years ago.

7. Some types of hepatitis can be cured.

There’s no specific therapy for hepatitis A once you contract it, but treating it is simple: With plenty of bed rest and hydration, the symptoms should clear up on their own within a few weeks or months. Hepatitis B, on the other hand, has a cure. Pegylated interferon-alphaA, a weekly shot administered over six months, eradicates hepatitis B in 25 percent of people. When it doesn’t work, patients can take oral medications, like amivudine and adefovir, that suppress symptoms. People with hepatitis C can take a combination of pegylated interferon and ribavirin tablets to recover from the condition, but this treatment doesn’t always work and can cause harsh side effects that are hard for some patients to tolerate.

In people with non-viral hepatitis, avoiding the cause—whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or toxic chemicals in their environment—is the first and most important step toward protecting their liver. Patients with autoimmune hepatitis may need to take drugs like Prednisone that lower their immune activity. If chronic hepatitis has gone untreated for a long time and the liver is severely damaged, a liver transplant may be the only option.

8. Long-term effects of hepatitis can be deadly.

If left untreated for too long, chronic hepatitis can have severe health effects. Even when symptoms aren’t immediately apparent, hepatitis takes its toll on the liver. One of the more dire outcomes of this condition is cirrhosis, a deadly liver disease that occurs when scar tissue starts to overtake healthy tissue inside the liver. This stops the liver from functioning properly and can lead to gallstones, swelling of the legs and feet, increased blood pressure, chronic bruising and bleeding, and poisoning of the brain. Liver cancer is another potential long-term side effect of chronic hepatitis.

9. Baby boomers are more likely than other age groups to have hepatitis C.

Baby boomers, a.k.a. people born between 1945 and 1965, are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than the rest of the population [PDF]. Transmission of hepatitis C reached its peak in the 1960s through the 1980s, before regular screenings for the virus became common, which is when most Boomers living with the disease today likely contracted it. Health experts recommend that everyone in this age group be tested for hepatitis C even if they don’t exhibit symptoms.

10. Viral hepatitis kills more people than malaria.

There are more than 325 million people around the world living with viral hepatitis today—that’s roughly equivalent to 4 percent of Earth's population. Every year, the disease leads to 1.34 million fatalities, which makes it deadlier than HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. While the death rates associated with those diseases are on the decline, deaths caused by viral hepatitis increased 22 percent between 2000 and 2015. In 2017, Charles Gore, then president of the World Hepatitis Alliance, said the spike can be blamed on a lack of funding and prioritization of hepatitis compared to other global health threats. Lack of awareness is also a problem: Just 5 percent of people with viral hepatitis realize they have it.

Alcohol-Producing Gut Bacteria May Harm Livers—Even if You Don't Drink

itakdalee/iStock via Getty Images
itakdalee/iStock via Getty Images

Teetotalers might think their liver is safe from the damaging effects of alcohol consumption, but new research is hinting that even non-drinkers and light drinkers might have cause for concern. It turns out a type of gut bacteria is capable of producing alcohol—and enough of it to potentially cause some pretty serious health consequences, including liver disease.

A study led by Jing Yuan at the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing, China and published in the journal Cell Metabolism offers details. After evaluating a patient with auto-brewery syndrome (ABS), a rare condition brought on by consumption and fermentation of sugary foods that leaves a person with high blood alcohol levels, researchers made an intriguing discovery. Rather than finding fermenting yeast that may have led to the condition, the patient’s stool contained Klebsiella pneumonia, a common gut bacteria capable of producing alcohol. In this subject, K. pneumonia was producing significantly more alcohol than in healthy patients.

The patient also had nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), characterized by fatty deposits in the liver. While many cases of NAFLD are relatively benign, too much fat can become toxic. Examining 43 other subjects with NAFLD, scientists found that that K. pneumonia was both present and potent, pumping out more alcohol than normal in 60 percent of participants with NAFLD. In the control group, a surplus was found in only 6.25 percent.

To further observe a correlation, scientists fed the bacteria to healthy, germ-free mice, who began to see an increase in fat in their livers after only one month. While not conclusive proof that the bacteria prompts NAFLD, it will likely trigger additional research in humans.

It’s not yet known how K. pneumonia acts in concert with the bacterial profile of the gut or what might make someone carrying stronger strains of the bacteria. Luckily, K. pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics. That’s good news for people who might never touch a drink and still find themselves with a damaged liver.

[h/t Live Science]

Visit Any National Park for Free on September 28—or Volunteer to Help Maintain Them

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Nick Hanauer/iStock via Getty Images

By the end of September—which always seems especially busy, even if you’re not a student anymore—you might be ready for a small break from the hustle and bustle. On Saturday, September 28, you can bask in the tranquility of any national park for free, as part of National Public Lands Day.

According to the National Park Service, the holiday has been held on the fourth Saturday of every September since 1994, and it’s also the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It’s up to you whether you’d like to partake in the service side or simply go for a stroll, but there is an added incentive to volunteer: You’ll get a one-day park pass that you can use for free park entry on a different day. Opportunities for volunteering include trail restoration, invasive plant removal, park cleanups, and more; you can see the details and filter by park, state, and/or type of event here.

If you’re not sure how you should celebrate National Public Lands Day, the National Park Service has created a handy flowchart to help you choose the best course of action for you—which might be as simple as sharing your favorite outdoor activity on social media with the hashtag #NPLD.

National public lands day celebration flowchart
National Park Service

There are more than 400 areas run by the National Park Service across the U.S., and many of them aren’t parks in the traditional sense of the word; the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz Island, and countless other monuments and historical sites are also run by the NPS. Wondering if there might be one closer than you thought? Explore parks in your area on this interactive map.

For those of you who can’t take advantage of the free admission on September 28, the National Park Service will also waive all entrance fees for Veteran’s Day on November 11.

And, if you’re wishing a free-admission day existed for museums, you’re in luck—more than 1500 museums will be free to visit on Museum Day, which happens to be this Saturday.

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