Hepatitis is a term used to describe inflammation (swelling) of the liver. It can occur as the result of a viral infection or because the liver is exposed to harmful substances such as alcohol.
A virus is a small particle, much smaller than a bacteria that you can get infected with in various ways. There are several viruses that cause hepatitis. The common ones are hepatitis A, B and C. Most people recover from hepatitis A with no lasting liver damage, but hepatitis B and C can cause long term liver disease and even liver cancer.
What causes viral Hepatitis?
Hepatitis A and E you can catch through dirty water, through infected food or poor food handling hygiene. It’s what we call a faecal-oral route – so you acquire it by the mouth and spread it via faeces. You can avoid those with good hand hygiene and cooking things properly.
Then we have the common acute hepatitis, which is a short illness that may be severe but from which most people will recover in a few weeks. What we mean by chronic viral hepatitis is when you have had something for more than 6 months and possibly, for the rest of your life. Then we are really talking about Hepatitis B and C. You tend to catch those by blood-to-blood transfer and transfer of bodily fluids. So the most common way of catching those are catching Hepatitis B sexually or you can acquire it during the time in your mother’s womb. That’s probably the way it’s actually caught most widely in the world.
Hepatitis C is through blood-to-blood contact. So the most common way now in this country is through intravenous drug use. But in the past it has been caused by blood transfusion before we knew about the virus. It is still caught in quite a lot of parts of the world through unsafe injection techniques in medical care. It can also be acquired sexually, as well, although less commonly. The other way you can get it is household contact – things like sharing razor blades, toothbrushes etc. So be careful about that if you’ve got it and you are sharing a house with people who haven’t got it.
How is it prevented?
To avoid getting Hepatitis B and C what you really need to do is avoid other people’s blood and bodily fluids. In terms of sex, using condoms is the best way of avoiding that. Also general hygiene measures – like not using someone else’s razor or toothbrush. That also includes people who use cocaine. Often people share straws or notes in order to snort the cocaine up. So if someone has a nose bleed or has a little sore nose you can get their body fluids on it and then you snort up your own nose. Tattooing is another potential way that you can get Hepatitis C. Hopefully most places in the UK now at least are savvy of the fact that sharing needles is a way of spreading hepatitis C and so it was with tattoos. If you know you’ve got viral hepatitis, then please be careful to try and avoid infecting other people. So if you’ve got a cut or are bleeding, always cover it up and clean it yourself. Also if you have an accident tell people you’re infected. So they can take appropriate precautions to avoid catching it themselves.