Did you know that more than 4 million Americans are living with chronic hepatitis, but most don’t even know they’re infected? Many people have been living with hepatitis for decades without feeling sick or experiencing any symptoms. One of the biggest challenges with the hepatitis group of diseases (yes, there are more than one) is getting information out and getting people to take notice. May is Hepatitis Awareness Month so we want to help change that.
There are actually 3 types of hepatitis (A, B & C) and they’re each caused by a different virus and spread in different ways.
Hepatitis A is usually caused by ingesting microscopic amounts of infected fecal matter through contaminated food or beverages (pretty gross, huh?). It can make you very sick for a few weeks or months, but usually doesn’t cause a long term infection.
Hepatitis B is usually spread through body fluid contact, which can include sexual contact, sharing equipment used to inject drugs like needles and syringes, and can even be passed from an infected mother to her baby at birth. There is usually a short term illness that takes place within 6 months of exposure and can sometimes lead to chronic infection, if the virus remains in the body.
Hepatitis C is usually spread when the blood of someone infected with Hepatitis C enters the body of someone who is not infected with the virus. This can happen with needle-stick injuries in healthcare settings, sharing drug injection equipment, sexual contact and mother-child transmission.
Unlike Hepatitis A & B, there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C. There is also a much higher likelihood for an acute infection to turn into a chronic infection. The CDC estimates that 75-85% of people who become infected with Hepatitis C develop a chronic infection. These lifelong infections may lead to other serious health problems like cirrhosis and even liver cancer – this is why it’s so important for people who may be at risk for Hepatitis to get tested as soon as possible. Most healthcare centers similar to Southwest Care offer this type of testing and depending on the results, can get you started on the necessary treatment quickly to control the disease before it has a chance to get worse.
The CDC features a great online tool to help you determine if you’re at risk, but here are 5 reasons you should get tested:
- You were born between 1945-1965, or if you have ever…
- Injected or snorted drugs, even one time
- Received a tattoo outside of a licensed setting
- Had sexual contact with someone with Hepatitis C
- Received any blood products before 1992 or outside of the U.S.
Do any of these apply to you? If so, you should get tested right away. There’s no better time to do it – this Monday, May 19th, is National Hepatitis Testing Day. As part of the effort to educate people, many health care providers are offering free hepatitis testing throughout the month. You can learn more about Hepatitis Testing Day Events in your area by clicking here.
You can also find a testing center near you all year round with this search tool from the National Prevention Information Network.
So what does getting tested actually involve? For each of the three types of Hepatitis, it starts with a health professional taking a small blood sample for lab analysis. You can ask your primary care doctor about getting tested, but it may be a phlebotomist (a person who is trained specifically to draw blood) that takes the sample. If you attend a Hepatitis Testing Day event, the reception staff will likely let you know who to see.
Once the blood sample has been taken, the lab will look for antibodies, which are proteins produced by the body to fight infections. The presence of hepatitis antibodies means that you have likely been exposed to a specific form of the virus at some point. Depending on the type of hepatitis antibodies, the lab may run additional tests to determine whether the virus is still present, active and what stage the infection is at.
You can usually get your results within a few days, sometimes earlier. If the results are negative but you think you may have been exposed within the last 6 months, you may want to schedule a second test to confirm. If the results are positive, your doctor will be able to help guide you through the next steps you should take.
How about some good news? Although, there’s still no vaccine for Hepatitis C, the FDA has approved several new treatments over the last few years that have improved cure rates for the disease. For more on the latest Hepatitis C treatments and other valuable information, check out the Fact Sheets at hcvadvocate.org. Remember, the first step towards treatment is getting tested!
Have you or has someone you care about been affected by hepatitis? Sign up to share your experiences with Health Stories Project!