The ABCs of hepatitis

crutchfieldsquareWhat is hepatitis? 

Hepatitis is the medical term for inflammation of the liver. The liver can become inflamed for many reasons. These include viral infections, toxic exposures such as alcohol and certain medications, industrial exposures and autoimmune disease.

Hepatitis is divided into two classes: acute (meaning the symptoms of hepatitis last less than six months), and chronic (meaning the symptoms of hepatitis last longer than six months). Sometimes hepatitis will present with no symptoms, but commonly it presents with a yellowing of the skin and whites of eyes, decreased or poor appetite, feelings of fatigue, fever, muscle and joint discomfort, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Your liver is a wedge-shaped organ located on your right side just underneath your rib cage. The liver is the second largest organ of the body and provides a protective role.

Everything we eat must first pass through the liver before it goes into the general circulation. The liver is involved in

Location of the liver
Location of the liver

nutrient breakdown, providing proteins that help the body function better, and distributes helpful nutrients to your entire body including processed carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

The three main functions of the liver involve nutrient breakdown, storage and creation of glucose that can be used throughout the body, and detoxification of harmful substances that enter the body (most notably alcohol) as well as other medications. The liver also makes bile, which helps to adjust the food we eat, stores glucose (which is a source for energy), and turns protein and fat into glucose for additional energy storage.

The liver will also break down many unwanted things in our blood including hemoglobin, proteins, and other toxins. The liver serves as a detoxification center; that is one of its most important roles. The liver is also a storehouse for vitamins and other minerals and makes certain proteins involved in the clotting of our blood.

What causes hepatitis? 

In this article we will discuss the three main viral causes of hepatitis: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. These are all completely different viruses that can infect and cause inflation of the liver.

Hepatitis A is an extremely contagious infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. Hepatitis A is contracted from contaminated food, water, or someone else who is harboring the virus. Most cases of hepatitis A are relatively mild and don’t require anything other than supportive treatment. Most people will recover without any long-lasting adverse effects.

Hepatitis B infection is caused by the hepatitis B virus and is passed from person to person through blood or other bodily fluids. Commonly, hepatitis B virus can be transmitted via the sharing of needles, accidental needle sticks, sexual contacts, and mother-to-child exposure. Hepatitis B can be either short-lived and acute, (your body will clear the infection on its own), or at times can become chronic, in which the Hepatitis B lasts longer than six months and can potentially cause liver cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis is a condition where the liver becomes scarred down and non-functional. There is a hepatitis B vaccine available; if you have an active hepatitis B infection, there are certain medications you can take to avoid spreading the infection to others. Some cases of hepatitis B can go undetected for many years when the infection is only discovered during a liver crisis.

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus. This infection of the liver occurs from exposure to contaminated blood. Hepatitis C is very serious because it can cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver failure, and liver cancer. Hepatitis C can be effectively treated.

How is hepatitis treated? 

One of the nice things to note is that in the near future there will be a whole new class of medications to treat hepatitis, especially hepatitis C. These medications are extremely effective and will probably pose a breakthrough in the treatment of hepatitis.

In the meantime, it’s important to make sure you have regular yearly examinations. Additionally, if you pose any risk factors, make sure your physician does a hepatitis screening panel, particularly if you’re at a high-risk occupation or participate in high-risk social habits.

It is important to consider talking to your physician about vaccinations and/or routine screening tests. The bottom line: hepatitis can be prevented and treated.

Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians,