Knowledge is power. In this section, you can read about what hepatitis is, its various forms, how it spreads and how you can protect yourself and others. With this essential information, you can separate the facts from the myths that have developed around hepatitis.
Most importantly, you’ll learn why you should get tested for hepatitis and where you can go for a simple, confidential test. And there’s great news if you test negative for hepatitis: A vaccine can protect you from becoming infected with hepatitis A or B.
Your liver is the largest organ in your body and plays an essential role in regulating life processes. It performs many vital functions such as:
- Converting food into chemicals for life and growth
- Detoxifying and removing substances poisonous to the body
- Manufacturing important substances needed by the rest of the body
- You simply cannot live without your liver
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. It may occur with limited or no symptoms but sometimes leads to fever and jaundice—a yellowish tint to the skin, eyeballs and urine that is caused by a build-up of bile in the body. The three main forms of hepatitis—called A, B and C—are all caused by a virus.
According to the Center for Disease Control, viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation. In the United States, an estimated 1.2 million Americans are living with chronic hepatitis B and 3.2 are living with chronic hepatitis C. Many do not know they are infected. Each year an estimated 25,000 persons become infected with Hepatitis A; 43,000 with hepatitis B, and 17,000 with hepatitis C.
Acute Viral Hepatitis
Acute viral hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver caused by a hepatitis virus. In most cases, the disease onsets suddenly and lasts only a few weeks. It can cause anything from symptoms of the flu to fatal liver failure. The symptoms, if any, usually develop quickly and may include: loss of appetite, nausea, fever, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In most people, special treatment is not needed, however, people with severe acute hepatitis may require hospitalization. People with acute viral hepatitis usually recover in 4 to 8 weeks and should avoid alcohol until they have fully recovered.
Chronic Viral Hepatitis
Chronic viral hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver caused by a virus that lasts at least 6 months. For most people, there are usually no symptoms until serious liver damage has developed. If symptoms manifest, they often include fatigue, poor appetite, and abdominal discomfort. Chronic viral hepatitis is most commonly caused by hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus and can lead to complications such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer if left unmonitored and/or untreated.
Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus and is usually transmitted through contaminated food or water. Typically, hepatitis A has milder symptoms than hepatitis B or C. Illness from hepatitis A is usually brief, and infection with the virus does not lead to chronic liver disease or liver cancer.
Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus and is usually transmitted through the blood of another person with hepatitis B or from mother to child during birth. There are usually no symptoms until there are serious liver complications. When symptoms do appear, they may include high fever, jaundice and abdominal pain. Untreated chronic hepatitis B can lead to cirrhosis and/or liver cancer.
Hepatitis C is also passed on through contaminated blood and is caused by the hepatitis C virus. Infection with the hepatitis C virus is the number-one reason for liver transplant in the U.S. Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C.
Alcoholic hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver caused by the long-term heavy intake of alcohol. Symptoms include enlargement of the liver, development of fluids in the abdomen, and elevation of liver enzymes. Alcoholic hepatitis can progress to cirrhosis if heavy alcohol use continues.
Autoimmune hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver resulting from the body’s own immune system attacking the liver. This disease is chronic and usually has very minor symptoms. When symptoms do occur, it usually includes fatigue, abdominal discomfort, itching, jaundice, enlarged liver, and nausea. If left untreated, automimmune hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.
Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease occurs in people with fatty liver who have no history of alcohol use. Symptoms may include fatigue, pain in the upper right abdomen, and weight loss. In the most severe cases, non-alocholic fatty liver disease can progress to liver failure.
How Viral Hepatitis Spreads
Hepatitis A virus is found in the feces of infected persons. It is usually spread from person to person by ingesting food or water contaminated with fecal matter.
Hepatitis A virus can be transmitted through:
- Drinking contaminated water
- Being in close contact with an infected person
- Eating food that was handled by a person with the virus, who did not carefully wash their hands after using the bathroom
Unfortunately, hepatitis B often has a stigma attached to it because it can be contracted through socially unaccepted behavior, such as injecting illegal drugs or engaging in unprotected sex.
However, many people do not realize that, most of the time, a person infected with hepatitis B is an innocent victim who has encountered the virus through:
- Birth, when his or her mother who was infected with hepatitis B passed the virus on (Most common)
- A transfusion with blood that has not been screened for the hepatitis B virus (HBV)
- Direct contact with blood from an open wound
- Sharing contaminated toothbrushes or razors
- Improperly cleaned tattooing needles
- Improperly cleaned medical or dental tools
It is important to note that most people who are infected with hepatitis B have no symptoms, yet they can still transmit the disease and are at risk of developing liver cancer.
The mode of transmission for hepatitis C is similar to hepatitis B, however, there are a few differences. Hepatitis C virus is spread through:
- Blood transfusions and organ transplants that have not been screened for hepatitis C
- Sharing of needles during injected drug use
- Birth: a small number infected mother can pass the virus to her baby
- Sexual contact: very rarely, hepatitis C can be spread through sex
Many misconceptions exist about hepatitis B and C, especially regarding the way in which it spreads. Hepatitis B and C cannot be transmitted by:
- Food or water (however, hepatitis A can be transmitted in this manner)
- Casual contact, such as hugging, shaking hands or kissing
- Sneezing or coughing
Health Risks of Viral Hepatitis
Hepatitis A can cause a person to feel sick for several months. However, almost all people fully recover from the disease and do not develop any serious liver damage. Hepatitis A can sometimes be fatal in persons over the age of 50 and/or with other liver diseases, such as hepatitis B or C.
A person infected with the hepatitis B virus (also called HBV) runs a significant risk of serious liver damage by cirrhosis, liver failure and/or liver cancer.
Without early detection and treatment:
- 25 percent of people infected with hepatitis B die from liver cancer or cirrhosis
- Some of these people develop cancer by age 30
- Every year, approximately one million people worldwide die from hepatitis B because they are diagnosed with the disease too late
One of the biggest dangers of hepatitis B is that it can be a silent killer. Many people infected with the hepatitis B virus have no symptoms—they feel perfectly healthy—until it is too late. However, these people can pass the disease on to others, and they, themselves, remain at risk for the complications of the disease. The only way to know for sure if you have hepatitis B is to get tested.
Why is hepatitis B such a big issue among Asians and Pacific Islanders?
It’s a simple case of statistics. Half of the known carriers of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) in the United States are people of Asian and Pacific Island descent. In some Pacific Rim countries, as many as 10 percent to 20 percent of the population are hepatitis B carriers.
How can I keep from passing Hepatitis B on to my child during birth?
If you have hepatitis B, there is no way to avoid exposing your child during the time of birth. However, if your baby receives hepatitis B immunoglobulin and the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of birth—as well as two follow-up hepatitis B vaccines—there is a 98% chance that he or she will be protected against the disease. Your baby will need to have the other two doses of the hepatitis B vaccine at ages 2 months and 6 months. This vaccine is free for children under 19 years of age through the federal Vaccines for Children program.
If you are pregnant or of childbirth age, it is important for you to have a hepatitis B test.
Hepatitis C is the most common reason for liver transplantation in the United States. Chronic hepatitis C can lead to serious liver damage, failure, cancer, and death.
According to the Center for Disease Control, of every 100 people infected with the Hepatitis C virus, about
- 75–85 people will develop chronic Hepatitis C virus infection; of those,
- 60–70 people will go on to develop chronic liver disease
- 5–20 people will go on to develop cirrhosis over a period of 20–30 years
- 1–5 people will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer
Similar to hepatitis B, hepatitis C can be a silent disease with no symptoms until serious liver damage has occured. People infected with chronic hepatitis C should be regularly monitored by an experienced doctor. There are effective treatments available for most people.
1 Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Viral Hepatitis
2 Source: Asian Liver Center at Stanford University
3 Source: Hepatitis B Foundation
Testing is Important
Hepatitis B is treatable! However, in order to treat the disease, you have to first know whether or not you are infected. Getting tested for hepatitis B is the first and most important step you can take.
Because hepatitis B often exists without causing any symptoms, it is known as a silent killer. If you have hepatitis B, the earlier the disease is detected, the better your chances are to prevent the most serious complications, including cirrhosis (in which normal liver tissue is replaced with non-functioning, fibrous tissue) and liver cancer.
Don’t be afraid and don’t be ashamed to get tested. The test is easy—we need only about one teaspoon of your blood—and your visit is treated with the strictest confidentiality. By taking this step, you may be saving your life and the lives of your family, friends, co-workers or neighbors who you may accidentally infect.
Even if you feel healthy, you may be carrying the hepatitis B virus. Therefore, it is important to get tested even if you’re not currently suffering any symptoms of the disease.
- How can I get a hepatitis B test for FREE?
The Asian Pacific Liver Center offers free hepatitis B testing in the Greater Los Angeles through our outreach program. Approximately twice a month, we travel to various communities and provide free screenings for hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and hepatitis B surface antibody (HBsAb). A trained nurse or phlebotomist will draw your blood, which will be sent to a lab for testing. We will mail you your results in 2-3 weeks. This is all provided at NO COST to you!
- How is the hepatitis B test conducted?
Having a hepatitis B test is as simple as getting blood drawn for any other routine diagnostic test. We need only about a teaspoon of your blood to conduct the test.
- How long does it take to get my test results?
You and/or the physician who refers you to us will receive your test results within 2~3 weeks.
- Can I get tested for other forms of hepatitis?
Yes. Although our focus at the Asian Pacific Liver Center is on hepatitis B, we do offer testing for other forms of hepatitis as well.
Take the first step now!
Is there a vaccine?
Yes—and no. There are vaccines available for hepatitis A and B, but not for hepatitis C.
If the two main blood tests for hepatitis B—the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and hepatitis B surface antibody (HBsAb) tests—show that you do not have hepatitis B, you should be vaccinated against the disease.
The hepatitis B vaccine consists of three doses given on three different visits to your doctor or clinic. This vaccine will protect you against being infected by hepatitis B and the diseases that may result from infection—including cirrhosis and liver cancer.
APLC Low-cost Vaccination Program
At the APLC, we can offer you low-cost hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine is provided for individuals who are negative for hepatitis B surface antibody. To protect yourself from future infection from hepatitis B, recommend that you contact us at (213) 207-5793 to schedule an appointment.
The vaccine clinic at APLC will be held every 1st and 3rd Thursdays from 1pm to 4pm, by appointments only.