Mike Mills, Consultant Gastroenterologist
The World Hepatitis Alliance is today commemorating the sixth annual World Hepatitis Day under the theme: 'This is Hepatitis. Know it. Confront it.'
It is well proven that having a keen awareness of hepatitis is critical to dealing with the virus which affects the liver.
Your liver is sitting in your abdomen just behind the rib cage below the right breast. Normally, you can't feel it and you won't even know it's there working. You only have one and it helps to clear the body of toxic substances.
The liver also helps in digestion by making bile, which it stores in the gall bladder. Other proteins are also made in the liver and keep the body functioning normally.
When the liver becomes inflamed or irritated, we refer to it as hepatitis. Many things, like pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol and infections, can cause hepatitis. One type of infection is caused by a virus, and when this affects the liver it is called viral hepatitis.
There are different viruses that can affect the liver, such as hepatitis A, B and C. They are all different. When hepatitis occurs, because the liver is in the abdomen you will likely have pain in that area of the abdomen on the right side.
You can also develop jaundice, which is a yellow discoloration of the parts of the body, like the eyes, where it is best seen. This happens because the liver is not functioning normally as the virus is attacking it.
You may also develop fever, vomiting, nausea and general tiredness as the illness becomes more pronounced.
With hepatitis A, B and C, this is usually the first stages of hepatitis called acute hepatitis. Type A hepatitis has only this stage, and most people will recover without any long-term damage. Types B and C, however, can go on to cause long-term liver problems and lead to what is called chronic hepatitis.
When this happens, the virus is always present and can be transmitted from person to person. It is important to find out what is causing the jaundice for this reason.
Hepatitis A does not need a special medication for treatment, but hepatitis B and C very likely will need medication for treating the liver. If untreated, the liver inflammation will keep going and finally cause cirrhosis. This is scarring of the liver. At this stage, the liver does not function well, and you may notice complications such as swelling of the legs and belly area, worsening jaundice and weight loss.
Other problems include swollen veins in the oesophagus or gullet, which can bleed into the intestine, and mental confusion. Liver cancer is also a problem with long-standing viral hepatitis. Prevention of these problems by identifying the virus and treating it early are important because it is much easier to manage when it is diagnosed early.
Vaccination for prevention is also possible.
The main risk factor for getting the virus is sexual contact, or by coming in contact with body fluids through contaminated needles or piercing, unclean tattoo needles, or from mother to child. For this reason, it is important to know your hepatitis status and take steps to prevent exposure. Even after exposure, steps can be taken to limit the risk of contracting the virus.
There is good news, however, as modern medications are available locally to manage the condition effectively.