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It’s sneaky, it’s silent, and it can permanently harm your liver. It’s called hepatitis (say: heh-puh-TYE-tus). Some people have hepatitis for many years without knowing it and then discover they have liver damage because of it.

So let’s find out more about hepatitis and how to prevent it.

Life of a Liver

Nonstop, 24 hours a day, your liver (an internal organ on the upper right side of your abdomen) does many tasks to keep your body running smoothly:

  • It’s like a vacuum! It cleans out toxins (poisons) from your blood.
  • It’s like a warehouse! It stores vitamins and minerals and makes sure your body gets the right amounts.
  • It’s like a bodybuilder! It produces the right amount of amino acids to build strong, healthy muscles.
  • It’s like a gas station! It keeps your body fueled up with just the right amount of glucose (sugar).
  • It’s like a meter! It helps regulate the levels of medicine you are taking. (Before some medicines can work, the liver has to start them up.) It also regulates hormones in your body.
  • It’s like a factory! It produces an important digestive liquid called bile.

What Is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an inflammation (say: in-fluh-MAY-shun) — a kind of irritation — or infection of the liver. If the liver is affected by or gets scarred from inflammation or infection, it can’t effectively do all of its jobs.

There are different ways you can get hepatitis. The two most common forms are:

  1. Toxic hepatitis: This can happen if someone drinks a lot of alcohol, takes certain illegal drugs or medicines, or is exposed to poisons.
  2. Viral hepatitis: There are lots of hepatitis viruses — from hepatitis A virus (hep A, for short) to hepatitis G. Though the viruses differ, they have one thing in common: They cause infection and inflammation that is harmful to liver cells.

We’re going to talk about hep A, B, and C because they’re the most common types of viral hepatitis.

Hepatitis A

For kids, hep A is the most common type of hepatitis to get. The virus lives in poop (feces) from people who have the infection. That’s why it’s so important to wash your hands before eating and after going to the bathroom. If you don’t, and then go make yourself a sandwich, hep A virus might end up on your food, and then in you!

Vegetables, fruits, and shellfish (such as shrimp and lobster) also can carry hepatitis if they were harvested in contaminated water or in unsanitary conditions. Hepatitis A affects people for a short time, and when they recover, it does not come back.

How to Prevent Hepatitis A

The following will help keep people safe from hepatitis A:

  • regular hand washing, especially after going to the bathroom or diapering a baby, and before eating
  • washing fruits and vegetables before eating them
  • not eating raw shellfish, such as raw oysters
  • getting the vaccine for hep A

Getting vaccinated helps a person’s body make antibodies that protect against hepatitis infection. The hepatitis A vaccine is now given to all kids when they’re between 1 and 2 years old, and to people who are traveling to countries where the virus could get into the food and water supply. The vaccine is also recommended for kids who have blood clotting problems or chronic liver disease.

Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C

Although hep A is a short-term illness that goes away completely, hep B and C can turn into serious long-term illnesses for some people. Teens and young adults are most at risk for getting these two viruses. Today, all babies get vaccinated against the hep B virus, but there isn’t a vaccine for hep C yet.

Hep B and C get passed from person to person the same ways that HIV does — through direct contact with infected body fluids. Hepatitis B and C are even more easily passed in fluids and needles than HIV. This can happen through sexual contact and by sharing needles (used to inject illegal drugs) that have been contaminated with infected blood. Even when infected people don’t have any symptoms, they can still pass the disease on to others.

Sometimes mothers with hep B or C pass the virus along to their babies when they’re born. Hep B and C also can get passed in ways you might not expect — such as getting a manicure or pedicure with unsterilized nail clippers or other dirty instruments. Getting a tattoo, if dirty needles are used, is another way someone can get hep B or C.

Signs and Symptoms of Hepatitis

Some people with hepatitis show no signs of having the disease, but others may have these symptoms:

  • tiredness without another reason
  • flu-like symptoms — throwing up, feeling hot, etc.
  • yellowing of skin and whites of eyes
  • belly pain (especially on the upper right side)
  • dark brown pee
  • light-colored stools (poop)
  • itchiness with no rash
  • poor appetite for days in a row or weight loss

A doctor who suspects someone may have hepatitis may ask questions like these:

  • Has the person been around anyone who works in health care or childcare?
  • Did the person stick himself or herself with a dirty needle or get a tattoo with a dirty needle?
  • Did the person have contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has hepatitis?
  • Did the person have a blood transfusion as a baby?
  • Have any of the person’s family members had hepatitis?
  • Could the person have eaten food that was contaminated with hepatitis A?

The doctor can order a blood test to see if someone has hepatitis and which type, then help the person get the right care.

Living With Hepatitis

Someone who has hepatitis will need to drink enough fluids, eat healthy foods, and get rest. The person’s family members may need to get hepatitis vaccines, if they haven’t already.

Later on, the person will get follow-up blood tests. Often the blood tests will show that the person no longer has hepatitis. Sometimes, the blood tests may show that someone is now a carrier of hepatitis — he or she won’t have hepatitis symptoms, but could pass the infection to other people.

Sometimes, blood tests will continue to show that some people still have hep B or C, which means they may have chronic or long-term hepatitis. If so, they will need to eat healthy foods and take very good care of themselves by getting rest and visiting the doctor regularly. In some cases, someone with chronic hepatitis may get special medicine for the condition.

We hope that this heads-up on hepatitis will help you stay safe. It may sound funny, but you can love your liver by washing your hands and making smart choices!

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: February 2014