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Hepatitis (Jaundice) is usually caused by viruses that cause inflammation in the liver. There are many viruses that can cause hepatitis, but the most common are Hepatitis A, B, and C.

Hepatitis A infection.

Hepatitis A is usually spread in contaminated water and food and it is the most common form of hepatitis in children. A person that is infected with Hepatitis A has the virus in his stool and can easily infect others if he doesn’t practice good hand washing techniques.

The virus is usually spread when someone eats or drinks contaminated food or water that was prepared by someone with a Hepatitis A infection, usually a household contact or in child care centers. It can also be spread through IV drug use and sexual contact. Casual contact, as in the usual office, factory, or school setting, does not spread the virus.

HAV can live outside the body for months, depending on the environmental conditions. HAV is killed by heating to 185 degrees F. (85 degrees C.) for one minute. However, HAV can still be spread from cooked food if it gets contaminated after cooking. Adequate chlorination of water kills HAV that may get into the water supply.

The most common symptoms of an infection with Hepatitis A are fever, abdominal pain, dark urine, jaundice (yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes), nausea and decreased appetite and activity level. These symptoms usually last a few weeks, but can last up to six months. Younger children may have an infection without any symptoms, or if they do have symptoms, they usually do not have jaundice, but they can still be contagious to others. The incubation period, or the time that it takes to develop an infection after being exposed, can range from 15-50 days, but is usually about 28 days. These infections are common during the summer months and can occur as epidemics. After recovery from hepatitis A, antibodies develop which provide lifelong protection from future infections.
Diagnosis can be made with blood tests to check for antibodies and liver function tests.

The Hepatitis A vaccine can protect kids from getting Hepatitis A. The Hepatitis A vaccine is now recommended for all children above the age of 12 months. Two doses are necessary with the booster dose given six months later. Protection against hepatitis A begins four weeks after the first dose of hepatitis A vaccine and usually lasts for 15-20 years in children and even longer in adults.

The vaccine has an excellent safety profile. No serious adverse events have been attributed definitively to hepatitis A vaccine. Soreness at the injection site is the most frequently reported side effect.

Hepatitis B is spread through contact with the blood and body fluids of someone who is infected with the virus. Blood screening has reduced the risk from transfusions. It can also be passed from cuts, scrapes, and other breaks in the skin. Mothers can transmit the virus to their babies at the time of delivery. There is no evidence that the viruses can be passed through casual contact, or other contact without exposure to blood, including kissing, hugging, sneezing, or coughing or by sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses. People infected with chronic hepatitis B or C should not be excluded from work, school, play, and child-care or any social or work settings on the basis of their infection.

It is much more serious than Hepatitis A and it can lead to lifelong infection and liver failure. It can be lethal in about 1% of patients. About 70% of patients infected with hepatitis B will eventually eliminate the virus. The rest will progress to chronic hepatitis.

There is also a vaccine available for Hepatitis B and it is a part of the regular vaccination schedule. All babies who are born to mothers with hepatitis should receive hepatitis B vaccine as soon as possible. This will prevent occurrence of infection in the babies. Also, all newborns should be vaccinated against hepatitis B as soon as possible. The vaccination schedule consists of 3 doses, the first dose being given soon after birth, second dose at 1 month and last at 6 months. Older children who were not vaccinated as a child should receive the vaccine at their next checkup.

Hepatitis C is also spread through contact with blood and body fluids, but unfortunately no vaccine or good treatment is available yet for this serious illness. It can also lead to lifelong infection and liver failure. Prevention is the best remedy.

In general, to prevent viral hepatitis you should:

  • Follow good hygiene and avoid crowded, unhealthy living conditions.
  • Take extra care, particularly when drinking and swimming, if you travel to areas of the world where sanitation is poor and water quality is uncertain.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after using the toilet and before eating.
  • Use antiseptic cleansers to clean any toilet, sink, potty-chair, or bedpan used by someone in the family who develops hepatitis.

Because contaminated needles and syringes are a major source of hepatitis infection, it’s a good idea to encourage drug awareness programs in the community and schools. At home, speak to your child frankly and frequently about the dangers of drug use. It’s also important to encourage abstinence and safe sex for teens, in order to eliminate their risk of hepatitis infection through sexual contact.