Hepatitis is the name given to an inflammation of the liver and comes in three main types – hepatitis A, B and C, with the latter being increasingly common with people who are living with HIV. Although some hepatitis types, such as hepatitis A, can only result in acute infection, others can result in lasting liver damage and be long term. The liver has a number of vital functions; filtering toxins, including medicines and alcohol, and transforming food into energy are among them. The good news however is that many forms of hepatitis can be treated or vaccinated against.
Hepatitis A and B
The hepatitis A virus exists in faeces and can be carried in minute traces on the hands, or on food prepared by someone with the infection. Contaminated water, particularly when overseas, can also carry the infection. In order to infect someone, the virus has to enter the mouth.
Hepatitis A and B can be transmitted in bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions and pre-cum and passed on via:
- Sharing drug injecting equipment such as syringes and needles
- Anal, oral and vaginal sex without a condom
Although hepatitis B does exist in saliva there is no evidence that the virus has ever been passed on by kissing alone, and bite infections are also very rare. Those infected should avoid sharing nail scissors, hair clippers, tweezers, razors and toothbrushes as the virus can be transmitted via minute traces of blood, including dried blood, as hepatitis B can survive outside the body for at least a week.
Symptoms of hepatitis A and B, which can occur for up to six weeks following the initial infection, can be very mild, sometimes to the point that individuals may not even realise they have been infected. Those symptoms include:
- Serious tiredness
- Jaundice (a yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin, darkening of the urine)
- Mild symptoms resembling the flu
- Stomach pain
- Itchy skin
Symptoms can last for a number of weeks, and overall health may take months to go back to normal.The great majority of people fully recover from hepatitis B but as many as one in twenty can develop a long term infection and become “carriers”, feeling well but posing a risk to others. There is a small chance that chronic sufferers may develop liver disease, and one in every hundred people infected may develop a much more serious illness that could be fatal without immediate treatment.
Vaccination is the simplest method to protect oneself from hepatitis A and hepatitis B. This can be done by a GP or a sexual health clinic, sometimes free of charge. It is particularly important to be vaccinated if you are gay, use drugs, travel to countries where the virus is much more common or are in close contact with an infected person. The hepatitis A vaccine lasts for a minimum of ten years, but the hepatitis B vaccine may require a booster injection after five years.
No special treatment is required for hepatitis A, with simple rest the normal recommended course of action. It is not possible to get hepatitis A again after the first infection, though other forms of hepatitis can still be contracted.
The most serious form of hepatitis is hepatitis C, which cannot be cleared without treatment, and those infected will remain infectious to other people. No vaccination exists against hepatitis C either, and treatment can be difficult. The virus can result in liver disease that is sometimes fatal.
The virus is passed on by blood and is less likely to be transmitted via semen, although this is not impossible. The great majority of people are infected with hepatitis C via the sharing of drug injecting equipment, straws, unsterilised tattooing and piercing equipment, or anything that could have blood traces such as razors and toothbrushes. Blood screening means blood transfusions are safe in the UK. Symptoms are identical to hepatitis A and B but with the addition of depression and mental confusion.
Drug treatment for hepatitis C has improved recently, with fewer side-effects and greater chances of success. Treatment can last from twelve weeks up to twelve months and involves injections or tablets. Hepatitis C can be fatal if left untreated, resulting in liver scarring that can cause liver failure and/or cancer.