May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, a health education push to make people more aware of risk, prevention, and treatment for hepatitis. Hepatitis is a disease of the liver that can affect people of all ages. Liver disease can lead to liver cirrhosis (scarring) and liver cancer.
There are three major kind of hepatitis: A, B, and C; this post will focus on hepatitis B and C.
Both hepatitis B and C can be spread through sharing equipment for injecting drugs, hormones or steroids. These are high risk transmission activities, as hepatitis could be injected directly into the bloodstream. Although this isn’t a risk factor for many people, consider the following two possibilities that are.
Hepatitis can be transmitted through sexual transmission when one partner has hepatitis, and blood is present. Hepatitis B is also in vaginal fluid and semen. Blood to blood contact can include abrasive sex (most obviously, sexual assault), but also sex where you might not even realize your tissues have torn. As women age, vaginal tissue becomes thinner and less resilient, making microscopic tears more likely. Tears can also happen if a woman isn’t fully lubricated. It’s important (not to mention more comfortable) to use lube and condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STI).
Hepatitis can also be transmitted through sharing personal care items like toothbrushes or razors that might have traces of blood on them. Never share with someone who has hepatitis or someone whose hepatitis status is unknown.
Hepatitis B may not produce symptoms if you get infected, so it can damage your health without you even being aware it’s an issue. Most people who get hepatitis B will clear the virus on their own, although a small percentage (5%) end up with chronic infection, for which treatment is available. Vaccination and safe sex are good ways to protect yourself.
Hepatitis C is more troublesome of the two. It’s recommended that all baby boomers who don’t know their hepatitis C status get tested, so if your birth year falls in the 1946-1964 window, talk to your doctor. Why boomers? They grew up in a time when we didn’t know about hepatitis C and how it was transmitted. Medical practice at the time was to reuse glass syringes and metal needles, and despite best efforts to sanitize, they contained hep C particles that put people at risk of getting the virus.
Like hepatitis B, some people will clear hepatitis C on their own, but only about 20-25% will do so. Hepatitis C doesn’t always produce symptoms, although there are some signs, like deep body aches, unusual joint pain, fatigue, and night sweats. These symptoms can be signs of other illnesses too, so it’s best to see your doctor for assessment. Hepatitis C can be treated and cured for many people but you can get re-infected, so it’s essential that you know how to prevent transmission. If you inject anything, dont’ share equipment, and have safe sex.
A simple blood test can tell if you have hepatitis. Get tested- knowing your health status can help you make informed decisions that lead to positive outcomes.