Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver, usually due to viral infection. There are a number of recognized viral types that cause problems, chief among them being:

  • Hepatitis A - typically acquired by eating contaminated food - the so-called fecal-oral route (yuk). Shellfish such as oysters may concentrate the viral particles as they feed by straining out microorganisms in seawater. If these shellfish are not properly cooked, they can produce infection. I would not eat a raw oyster on a bet, myself. Hepatitis A has an incubation period of 15 to 50 days, average 25-30 days. Symptoms are fever, jaundice, loss of appetite, nausea, and "malaise" (general dragginess). All household and sexual contacts of the patient are given the hepatitis A vaccine, which is as effective in preventing the disease as the older immune globulin shots (gamma globulin). Children now should receive 2 doses of hepatitis A vaccine in the toddler years. The vaccine is also recommended for persons at high risk (as for example those travelling to third-world countries).
  • Hepatitis B - typically acquired by "exchange of body fluids" - sex, blood transfusions, needle sharing. While it is harder to acquire, this is a more serious infection, because it can cause chronic liver inflammation leading to liver failure or liver cancer. Acute symptoms are about like those of hepatitis A, but insidious, symptomless infection in children is common. There is no treatment and no prophylaxis is given to household contacts. The incubation period of Hepatitis B is longer - 45 to 160 days, average 120 days. Hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for all children as part of their primary immunization series. Many American colleges and universities require hepatitis B immunity for admission.
  • Hepatitis C - also called Non-A, Non-B Hepatitis. This is a dangerous viral hepatitis which is transmitted via blood products as well as by routes as yet unknown, since many cases have no history of needle or blood product exposure. Half of the cases progress to chronic liver disease, including cirrhosis of the liver and perhaps cancer. It is unusual in children under about 15 years old. There is no vaccine or specific treatment for hepatitis C.

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