What is Hepatitis? 4 Facts You Should Know

Kelsey Ferrara
hepatitis day

Every year on July 28th, people around the world observe World Hepatitis Day, a global initiative aimed at raising awareness about the virus and its impact. 

Millions of people are affected by hepatitis, but not everyone knows what it is, how you can get it, what you can do to prevent it, and how to treat it. Here are some key things everyone should know, especially if they inject drugs: 

1. What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an infection that attacks the liver and causes inflammation. The most common types of hepatitis in the U.S. are A, B, and C.  When someone is infected, their liver may swell or start to shut down, leading to tiredness, jaundice, and other symptoms.

Hepatitis A is usually a short-term infection and does not become chronic. Hepatitis B and C may begin as short-term, acute infections, but in some people the virus remains in the body, which can cause long-term liver problems. 

2. How can you get hepatitis? 

Many people with hepatitis don’t realize they’re infected for months or even years. Symptoms may not show up immediately, or they may be mild and easily overlooked. Because of this, people can unknowingly transmit the virus to others, causing it to spread.

People with addiction are at higher risk for developing hepatitis.

Hepatitis B and C are spread when someone comes in contact with infected blood. People who use drugs are at higher risk of getting hepatitis B and C because both can be spread through contaminated needles. Many people don't know that it can also be spread through syringes, cookers, water containers, surfaces used to prepare or inject drugs, or contaminated smoking pipes.

Hepatitis B and C can also be spread through sexual activity, sharing personal items that may have touched blood (like toothbrushes and razors), and sharing equipment that has pierced the skin (like tattoo needles and piercing equipment). 

3. How can you prevent hepatitis?

According to one study, as many as 2.2 million people individuals in the U.S. are living with chronic hepatitis B, and 3.5 million are living with hepatitis C. While hepatitis A isn’t as common, recently there have been large outbreaks of hepatitis A among those experiencing homelessness. Many of these infected individuals don't even know they have the disease. 

For all of these reasons, prevention is crucial.  Practicing good hygiene, using protection during sexual activity, and using safe injection practices can help stop the spread. 

Here are some steps you can take to stay safe: 

  • Get tested for hepatitis at your next annual exam. Getting tested is crucial because hepatitis B and C may cause no symptoms for years or even decades after infection. 
  • Use sterile needles and injection paraphernalia. These can often be obtained from a local syringe services program or harm reduction center.
  • Use a sterile space to prepare and consume drugs.
  • Get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B. 

4. How can you treat hepatitis?

For those who have already been exposed to hepatitis –  testing and diagnosis are vital for stopping long-term damage. 

Antiviral medications are available for the treatment of chronic hepatitis B and C, which can help slow down the progression of the disease and reduce the risk of liver damage. A few of the antiviral medicines include entecavir, tenofovir, lamivudine, and several more. These medications prevent the virus from replicating, or creating copies of itself, and may prevent progressive liver damage. 

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