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Definition: Hepatitis

Hepatitis - is a group of diseases of the liver that can be caused by consuming contaminated water or food, using dirty needles or syringes, or practicing unsafe sex. Scientists have identified six hepatitis viruses, but three - known as A, B and C - cause about 90 per cent of acute hepatitis cases. People infected with hepatitis can experience effects ranging from mild illness to serious liver damage. Many recover completely from an infection, while others become carriers of the disease and can spread it to others unknowingly. It is especially important for women who are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant to get tested for hepatitis.

Typical symptoms of acute hepatitis are jaundice (yellowish colour on the skin and eyeballs), fever, appetite loss, nausea, and abdominal pain.

Hepatitis A is spread by food or water contaminated by feces, primarily by poor hand washing when preparing food. It may also come from polluted drinking water. Signs and symptoms include weakness, headache, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, dark orange urine, jaundiced eyes and skin. Bed rest is advised and you will recover very quickly with no long-term side effects, plus you will be immune to Hep. A for life. There is a simple and effective vaccine for Hepatitis A and this is recommended if you will be travelling.

Hepatitis B is a very resistant virus that spreads very fast by contact with blood, semen, vaginal secretions, or saliva of a person infected. This means sexual contact or sharing needles with an infected person. Also spread from mother to baby during pregnancy. Signs and symptoms are similar to Hepatitis A. With extended rest, proper diet, and medical treatment, 90% recover, 9% carry the virus forever. Since many people have no symptoms until later in life after liver damage occurs, it is a good idea to be tested for Hep. B. There is a vaccine now given to school children and those at risk. Partners and people you live with should also be vaccinated.

Hepatitis C is primarily a blood borne virus so it is spread by blood transfusions or sharing dirty needles, tattoos, piercing or acupuncture with dirty needles. There is no risk from hugging, kissing, and a very low risk of sexual transmission although there is a risk if you have unprotected sex with a female who is menstruating. Hepatitis C will not affect a baby during pregnancy nor during breast feeding. Signs and symptoms may not appear for years. They include fatigue, muscle & joint pain, fever, no appetite & weight loss, diarrhea, nausea, jaundice, dark urine and clay-coloured stools. There may be long-term liver damage, but it may take up to 30 years before cirrhosis of the liver becomes apparent. In severe cases of Hep. C, liver cancer can develop. Treatment is diet, exercise, reduce stress, don't smoke.

To prevent hepatitis infection, do not share needles and ask your doctor about vaccination, especially if you are travelling overseas. Practise safer sex and if you develop any symptoms, see your doctor.

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