Hepatitis is one of the most common infectious diseases in the world. There are numerous strains of this illness, and its effects can range from mild flu-like symptoms to fatal liver disease. There is a lot of information necessary in order to better understand hepatitis and learn how to fight it. With all the many types, it can be confusing. An overview of what we know seems like a logical place to start.
What is Hepatitis?
The word hepatitis literally means “inflammation of the liver” (from the root word hepato meaning “liver”, and itis meaning “inflammation of”). The term can refer to liver disease caused by toxins that damage the liver (foreign substances such as chemicals and drugs), but the vast majority of hepatitis is caused by a virus. This category of hepatitis is generally known as viral hepatitis. There are six main types of viral hepatitis: Hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, and G. Types A, B, and C are the most common. Let’s break them down by type and see what is known about each of these strains.
Hepatitis A is caused by the Hepatitis A Virus (HAV). It is sometimes called “infectious hepatitis” because it is so easily spread, mainly through fecal contamination. It often occurs in epidemics, and many large outbreaks have been linked to the contamination of food that has been handled by infected individuals. Sewage contaminated with HAV can infect food supplies as well. Shellfish is particularly susceptible to this.
Symptoms usually appear 2-7 weeks after exposure. Subjects can be contagious starting approximately one week before symptoms come on. The virus can survive for a few hours on the skin, and this is when it is often passed to others.
Hepatitis A is rarely severe, and symptoms commonly last a maximum of two months. Type A is an acute illness, and it does not lead to chronic hepatitis. Most patients recover fully. However, some may experience a second episode or a relapse, usually about 30 days after the first. Patients who fully recover no longer carry the virus in their systems, and are immune to HAV for life. Typical symptoms include:
v Flu-like symptoms in the initial phase: fatigue, muscle aches and pains, loss of appetite, nausea, and a low-grade fever.
v As the liver becomes affected, pain and tenderness in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen indicates liver enlargement, and jaundice is common as well.
Certain people are at greater risk of developing hepatitis A than others:
v Those living in overcrowded and/or unsanitary surroundings
v Sexually active persons, especially with multiple partners
v Children and workers at day care centers
v Tourists traveling to areas where hepatitis A is common
Hepatitis B is caused by the Hepatitis B Virus (HBV). It is one of the more frequently found infectious diseases in the world, affecting over 300 million people worldwide. It is also known as “serum hepatitis” because it is often spread through contaminated blood and blood products, as well as through sexual contact with an infected individual.
Hepatitis B is found in both acute and chronic forms. In the United States, most acute cases are found in teens and young adults. 50% of these young people never experience symptoms, and many will never be diagnosed. Of the remaining 50%, only 20% ever get severe symptoms that involve the liver, such as enlargement or jaundice. The other 30% will only get the typical flu-like symptoms. This makes for a lot of young folks running around with an infectious disease that most of them don’t even know they have! Perhaps some coaching is in order.
HBV infections lasting more than six months are considered chronic. Many patients only carry the virus and never develop chronic liver disease. Symptoms and complications are serious in about 25% of chronic cases. Cirrhosis of the liver is likely in these cases, which is a condition that is characterized by damaged liver cells being replaced with scar tissue, causing liver dysfunction. Liver and spleen enlargement is possible too, along with jaundice. More serious cases can lead to liver cancer.
HBV can be passed between individuals through tiny breaks in the skin of the mouth or genital area. It is found in saliva, semen, and vaginal secretions. Individuals at increased risk include those who are:
v Sexually active, especially with multiple partners
v Recipients of blood transfusions
v Intravenous drug users who share needles
v Newborns of mothers with hepatitis B (can be transmitted before or during birth)
Hepatitis C is caused by the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV). (It was formerly known as hepatitis non-A, non-B). Hepatitis C is also called “transfusion hepatitis”. One of the main ways it used to be passed on was through contaminated blood transfusions. Today all blood is tested for HCV, but prior to the identification of HCV in 1989, approximately 10% of all transfusion patients developed hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is also found in acute and chronic forms. The acute infection is generally not severe; however, Chronic Hepatitis C (CHC) is a very serious and widespread condition. It is thought that over 5 million Americans are infected and perhaps as many as 200 million worldwide. There are more deaths from hepatitis C every year than from AIDS. CHC is much more likely to cause chronic liver disease than hepatitis B. Approximately 2 out of 3 hepatitis C patients may carry the virus in their blood for life and are capable of infecting others even though they are non symptomatic themselves.
CHC often leads to cirrhosis and liver damage, but it may take up to 20 years before these symptoms appear. Liver cancer is also a complication found frequently in CHC patients.
Risk factors and symptoms for HCV infections are generally the same as those for HBV infections.
Hepatitis D (or “delta hepatitis”) is found only in patients who are also infected with hepatitis B. Hepatitis D (HDV) may be contracted simultaneously with HBV (coinfection), but sometimes it develops later when HBV has entered the chronic stage (superinfection). With coinfection, only a small percentage of subjects become carriers or develop chronic hepatitis. Some research indicates that HDV may actually lessen HBV’s ability to proliferate.
When superinfection occurs, a large percentage of patients (50-66%) develop the severe acute form of hepatitis. Superinfection seems to have a catalyst effect and causes HBV to be more productive. Severe infections and liver failure are very common with superinfection. However, the rate of liver cancer seems to be about the same as with HBV alone.
Symptoms of HDV infections are typically similar to other forms of hepatitis.
Hepatitis E is caused by the Hepatitis E Virus (HEV). HEV is rare in the United States. There are two main strains of HEV, one found in Asia and the other in Mexico. Unlike other types of hepatitis, HEV infection often begins in the gastrointestinal tract, and then spreads to the liver. It is strictly an acute infection, and usually mild and short-lived. In rare cases, HEV can damage massive amounts of liver cells, and may be fatal. This condition is called “fulminant liver failure”.
Hepatitis G is a recently discovered form of hepatitis, identified in 1996. The Hepatitis G Virus (HGV) is not thoroughly understood yet, but it is usually found in conjunction with HBV, HCV, or both. Rarely, HGV is found alone. HGV is also called hepatitis “GB virus.” Some researchers believe that a family of GB viruses exists. Most HGV infections are not severe, nor are they long lasting. There is no indication of chronic infections and/or liver damage from HGV, but this strain has simply not been studied long enough to eliminate the possibility.
A diagnosis of most forms of hepatitis can be made from several laboratory tests. Blood tests can indicate the levels of hepatitis antibodies. Liver function tests, which measure the viral load of the liver, are helpful too. Viral load readings are especially helpful at analyzing liver function in patients with existing hepatitis.
What Can Be Done to Prevent Hepatitis and Lessen the Symptoms?
The best way to reduce your risk of developing hepatitis is to live a clean, healthy life. Do not engage in irresponsible sex, do not use intravenous drugs, and be careful what you eat or drink, especially if you live in or travel to an area that has a high incidence of hepatitis. Beyond that, there are many suggested dietary and herbal recommendations that can help. Many of these remedies support and strengthen the liver, which is the main casualty of attacks by hepatitis viruses. Keeping your liver operating at peak efficiency will also help the body to cleanse itself of other agents that can drag your health down. A strong, healthy liver will help you to avoid ever contracting most diseases, including hepatitis. If you are infected, the liver can certainly lessen the effects and duration of the illness. Here are some suggested therapies:
v Diet and lifestyle are of supreme importance.
ü If you smoke, give it up.
ü Keep alcohol consumption to little or none.
ü Moderate or eliminate caffeine.
ü Eat a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat and simple carbs. Some foods are particularly helpful at detoxifying the body:
q High sulfur foods such as eggs, garlic, onions, and beans.
q Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, and brussel sprouts.
q High fiber foods like oat meal, apples, and legumes.
q Consume generous amounts of clean, pure water every day.
v Milk Thistle has shown great promise in helping hepatitis patients. It encourages growth of new liver cells, and acts as a barrier to toxins that seek to invade the liver. Try to find a supplement that also includes phosphatidylcholine, as research indicates this combination is even more effective than milk thistle extract alone. Tears down free radicals and is an excellent antioxidant.
v Glucuronate is a substance that is involved in many liver functions. It helps the liver remove foreign substances such as nicotine, alcohol, and toxic chemicals. Acts as an antioxidant as well.
v Licorice is known to protect the liver and boost the immune system. It is also recommended to patients who are taking interferon, the most commonly used prescription drug for hepatitis treatment. Licorice extract seems to boost the effectiveness of the interferon, and helps to lessen the side effects of the drug.
v Liver and thymus extracts, often taken from cows, are used by some to boost the immune system and fight the hepatitis virus.
v Vitamin C boosts the immune system, and studies have shown that it can help to keep hospital patients from contracting hepatitis.
v Curcumin is an ingredient in the spice curry, and it seems to help the liver excrete toxins better. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.