Diane Miller: Be aware of hepatitis

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An estimated 4.5 million Americans have chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C, which together account for the major cause of chronic liver disease and liver cancer.

■ What is hepatitis?

“Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. The liver is a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood and fights infections. When inflamed, the liver’s function can be affected. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications and certain medical conditions can cause hepatitis but hepatitis is most often caused by a virus. In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Many of the 4.5 million people who are chronically infected with viral hepatitis do not even know they are infected.

■ How is hepatitis spread?

Hepatitis A is spread when a person ingests microscopic amounts of fecal matter from contact with objects, food or drinks contaminated by the feces or stool from an infected person. Although anyone can get hepatitis A, some people are at greater risk, such as those who travel to or live in countries where hepatitis A is common, have sexual contact with someone who has hepatitis A or are household members or caregivers of a person infected with hepatitis A.

Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are usually spread through sexual contact with an infected person or sharing needles, syringes or other drug-injection equipment. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are not spread through breastfeeding, sharing eating utensils, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing or sneezing. Hepatitis B can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby at birth.

■ Can viral hepatitis be prevented?

Yes! Viral hepatitis can be prevented. The best way to prevent hepatitis A and B is for all children and for adults with risk factors to get vaccinated. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C but you can prevent hepatitis C by not sharing needles or other equipment to inject cosmetic substances, drugs or steroids, by not using personal items that may have come into contact with an infected person’s blood, such as razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes or glucose monitors and by not getting tattoos or body piercings at an unlicensed facility or in an informal setting.

With vaccination and early detection, you can protect yourself and others from hepatitis. If you think you might be at risk, talk to your health professional about vaccination and testing. Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association offers free hepatitis A and B vaccinations and free hepatitis C screenings for those with risk factors. In Craig call 970-824-8233 and in Steamboat Springs call 970-879-1632.

Information provided by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Diane Miller, RN

Director of Clinical and Quality Services, Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association

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