Viral hepatitis is a group of diseases that affect thousands of Canadians each year. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent them.
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that can have various causes, including infection by different viruses. When a virus is responsible for this inflammation, this is considered to be viral hepatitis. There are currently six known viruses that can cause hepatitis. Three of those six are at the root of 90% of viral hepatitis cases in Canada—they are hepatitis A, B, and C.
These viruses enter the body by different means and affect the liver to varying degrees. In some cases, hepatitis is mild and without consequence for the person affected by it. In other cases, the liver is affected to the point that a liver transplant is necessary. Individuals affected by an acute phase of hepatitis A, B, or C often don’t present any symptoms, if the opposite is true, the following symptoms can be noted:
- abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
- jaundice (skin and white of the eyes are yellowed)
- pale coloured stool and dark urine
- diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting
Hepatitis can be acute or chronic. Most types of hepatitis disappear after a few weeks. However, inflammation of the liver may last longer than six months, this is considered to be chronic hepatitis. Some of the complications due to chronic hepatitis are cirrhosis and cancer of the liver.
Hepatitis A is often referred to as "travellers’ hepatitis", as the risk of getting it are higher when visiting certain destinations. For additional information about this type of hepatitis and the ways to protect against it, click here.
Hepatitis B is the most common hepatitis in the world. The virus is transmitted through unprotected intercourse or exposure to blood or other contaminated fluids. Hepatitis B can also be transmitted from mother-to-child during childbirth.
Many individuals affected by hepatitis B recover completely and develop antibodies against the disease, making them immune to it. In some cases, the body is unable to eliminate the virus—causing chronic infection—infected individuals don’t heal and can transmit the virus even when they don’t present symptoms of the infection.
Various treatments can be prescribed. The treatment of hepatitis B is constantly evolving and several drugs currently available in Canada help to fight against this form of hepatitis. Although all of these drugs are approved for the treatment of chronic hepatitis B, they don’t eliminate the infection, except in rare cases.
Therefore, it’s important to protect against the hepatitis B virus, especially by vaccination, but also by applying preventive measures, some of which appear below:
- adopt safe sexual practices
- always use a condom during intercourse
- avoid sharing needles or drug paraphernalia
- avoid sharing your toothbrush, razor, nail file or any other personal item likely to come into contact with blood
- cover all wounds with a bandage
Hepatitis C is transmitted mainly through blood and very rarely through unprotected intercourse. The virus can also be transmitted by shared needles, blood transfusions, tattooing, body piercing and shared personal items soiled by contaminated blood. The use of injectable drugs is responsible for at least half the cases of hepatitis C.
The virus can also be passed on from mother-to-child during childbirth. In most cases, the body is unable to eliminate the virus and the infected individual becomes a chronic carrier. The disease can be transmitted even when the individual doesn’t present any symptoms.
As with hepatitis B, treatments are available to contain the disease, although they don’t eliminate it. Unfortunately, there are no vaccines available against hepatitis C, so it’s very important to apply the recommended preventive measures, which are essentially the same as the ones suggested to protect against hepatitis B.
Fortunately, there are vaccines available against hepatitis A and B. They provide effective protection against these infections and their complications. They are available to anyone who wishes to reduce the risk of contracting these two viruses. They can be administered separately or together in the form of a combined vaccine.
The immunization calendar for children and adolescents now includes the vaccine against hepatitis A and B. Immunization begins at the same time as the first recommended vaccinations at two months old and continues until fourth grade.
Speak to your pharmacist for additional information about viral hepatitis and the ways to protect against it, including vaccines.
This health tip is presented in collaboration with: