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What do drugs, alcohol, unprotected sex, tattoos, and body piercings have in common? They're all things your parents probably lecture you about avoiding, but there's another connection as well - they can all lead to a liver condition called hepatitis.

What Is Hepatitis?
The liver is one of the body's powerhouses. It helps process nutrients and metabolizes medication. The liver also helps clear the body of toxic waste products.

The word hepatitis (pronounced: heh-puh-tie-tus) means an inflammation of the liver, and it can be caused by one of many things - including a viral or bacterial infection, liver injury caused by a toxin (poison), and even an attack on the liver by the body's own immune system.

Although there are several forms of hepatitis, the condition is usually caused by one of three viruses: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C virus. The hepatitis virus is a mutating virus, which means that it changes over time and can be difficult for the body to fight. In some cases, hepatitis B or C can destroy the liver. The patient then will need a liver transplant to survive, which is not always available or successful.

Hepatitis A
The hepatitis A virus is transmitted through the feces (poop) of infected individuals. People usually get hepatitis A by eating food or drinking water that's been contaminated with feces. Although that sounds disgusting, hepatitis A is actually considered to be the least destructive of the hepatitis viruses. That's because, unlike the other types, it rarely leads to permanent liver damage. Within a few weeks, the symptoms will have gone away on their own and the hepatitis A virus will no longer be in your system. Once a person has recovered from a hepatitis A infection, that person has immunity to the virus, meaning he or she will probably never get it again.

Hepatitis B
Hepatitis B is a more serious infection. It may lead to a condition called cirrhosis (permanent scarring of the liver) or liver cancer, both of which cause severe illness and even death. Hepatitis B is transmitted from person to person through blood or other body fluids.

In the United States, the most common way people get infected with hepatitis B is through unprotected sex with a person who has the disease. People who shoot drugs also are at risk of becoming infected because it's likely that the needles they use will not have been sterilized. In fact, about one in every 20 people living in the United States will become infected with the hepatitis B virus - and the risk of infection is greater for people who have unprotected sex or inject drugs.

That's scary stuff given that, as yet, there's no effective cure for hepatitis B. In most cases, a teen who gets hepatitis B will recover from the disease and may develop a natural immunity to future hepatitis B infections. But some people will have the condition forever. Medications can help some people with hepatitis B get rid of the virus.

Hepatitis C
Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Hepatitis C is transmitted from person to person through blood or other body fluids.

Hepatitis C is the most serious type of hepatitis - it's now one of the most common reasons for liver transplants in adults. Every year, thousands of people in the United States die from the virus. And there's no cure and no vaccine.

An estimated 3.9 million Americans are currently infected with the virus. The most common way people become infected is through sharing drug implements such as needles and straws. People also get hepatitis C after having unprotected sex with an infected partner. Before the 1980s, many people got hepatitis C through blood transfusions, but better blood screening and handling procedures now mean that this rarely happens.

The medications currently used to treat hepatitis C are effective in controlling the disease in some people. However, hepatitis C treatments are not very easy, because they require weekly injections for 6 to 12 months, as well as taking other medications by mouth.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Hepatitis infection causes inflammation of the liver, which means that the liver becomes swollen and damaged and begins losing its ability to function. People with hepatitis often get symptoms similar to those caused by other virus infections, such as weakness, tiredness, and nausea. Because the symptoms of hepatitis are similar to other conditions, it's easy for a person who has it to confuse it with another illness. In addition, people with hepatitis A may not show any symptoms of the infection, so the infection can go undiagnosed. People with hepatitis B or C infection also may not show symptoms right away, but can develop health problems from the infection many years later.

Symptoms of hepatitis include:

  • yellowing of the skin and eyes, known as jaundice
  • fever
  • nausea, vomiting, and lack of appetite
  • abdominal pain (on the upper right side)
  • light-colored bowel movements
  • dark-colored urine

The incubation period (how long it takes between the time a person becomes infected and symptoms first appear) for hepatitis varies depending on the type a person has. A person may notice these symptoms anywhere from 15 days to 25 weeks after getting the disease, depending on the type of hepatitis.

How Is Hepatitis Diagnosed and Treated?
A blood test is usually needed to determine if a person has hepatitis.

Doctors don't prescribe medications to treat hepatitis A; they usually recommend a person rest until any fever and jaundice are gone and the person's appetite has returned to normal. Hepatitis B and C can sometimes be treated with medications, although some forms of medication used to treat hepatitis C are only approved for use in adults. Although treatments for hepatitis B and C are becoming more effective, a cure cannot be guaranteed.

Protecting Yourself
There are vaccines available to protect people against hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Today, all children in the United States are routinely vaccinated against hepatitis B at birth. Because hepatitis A is usually not a serious illness, doctors generally recommend this vaccination only for people who are at high risk of catching the disease. Usually these are people who are traveling to certain parts of the world where sanitation isn't very good. Sometimes, if a person has been recently exposed to hepatitis A or B virus, a doctor may recommend a shot of immune globulin containing antibodies against the virus to try to prevent the person from coming down with the disease.

In addition to the vaccinations against hepatitis A and B, there are other steps for protecting yourself against hepatitis virus infection:

  • Avoid unprotected sexual intercourse. Not only does unprotected sex put you at risk for many other sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, but hepatitis B or C is also a significant risk.
  • Avoid intravenous drug use. Hepatitis is only one of the life-threatening infections you can get by sharing contaminated needles.
    Don't share straws when snorting cocaine. You can pass along the hepatitis virus.
    Wash your hands before handling food or after using the bathroom. Washing your hands thoroughly is one of the simplest, most important ways to prevent the spread of any infection, including hepatitis.
  • Be sure your tattoo or piercing shop sterilizes needles properly. Poorly sterilized or nonsterile needles put people at risk for hepatitis B or C.
  • Don't share toothbrushes or razors. Although sharing may be considered an act of friendship, it's better to use your own because hepatitis can be transmitted through sores on a person's mouth or cuts on the skin.
  • Avoid eating raw shellfish (such as clams or oysters). You could put yourself at risk for hepatitis A if the shellfish was harvested from contaminated water.

Hepatitis infection can be serious, but knowing what puts you at risk (and what doesn't - no one gets hepatitis from sneezes, coughs, or holding hands) can help protect you.

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