“As a physician caring for patients with liver disease for the past 23 years, a large part of my day is spent educating patients about the various aspects of liver disease, and how to maintain a healthy liver,” says Joseph Galati, M.D., board certified gastroenterologist on staff at Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital and medical director of the Houston Methodist J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center. “Viral hepatitis, related to hepatitis A, B and C, is the most common virus.”
TYPES OF HEPATITIS
Hepatitis A is transmitted through contaminated food or water. This is the least destructive of the viruses, and people with hepatitis A generally make a full recovery with no permanent liver damage. “There is a safe and effective hepatitis A vaccine that is available, providing immunity,” says Dr. Galati. The Centers for Disease Control recommends all children be vaccinated as well as anyone over 1 year of age traveling or working in countries with a prevalence of hepatitis A.
Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood or body fluids and through childbirth of women infected with the virus. In the United States, it is most commonly spread through unprotected sex with an infected person or intravenous drug needles. Health care workers, who work with needles and frequently come in contact with blood, are also at risk. “A safe and effective vaccine for hepatitis B is available,” says Dr. Galati. “Newborns are routinely vaccinated for hepatitis B, and universal vaccination for all adults should be considered.”
Hepatitis C is transmitted through contact with infected blood, unprotected sex with an infected person and through childbirth. Many patients with hepatitis C have no symptoms, which delays diagnosis. Hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver caused by liver disease) and liver cancer. “Currently hepatitis C is the No. 1 disease leading to liver transplants,” says Dr. Galati. “New, highly effective therapies for hepatitis C are available.”
In addition to viral hepatitis, other causes of inflammation of the liver include an overactive immune system, excess fat in the liver, as well as excess iron and certain medications. Most forms of hepatitis will result in some chemistry elevation of the liver. Symptoms may include fatigue, nausea, abdominal discomfort, itching or joint pain. Yellowing of the skin, known as jaundice, in many cases is a late sign.
“Any elevation of your liver enzymes, regardless of how you feel, warrants a thorough evaluation,” says Dr. Galati.
WATCHING WHAT YOU EAT AND DRINK
Being overweight can have effects on the liver, too. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is inflammation of the liver due to excess fat deposited in the liver. The good news is that by addressing underlying metabolic problems such as obesity, blood glucose issues and high cholesterol, any liver damage can potentially be reversed.
With regard to alcohol and its effect on the liver, the general recommendations are that women have no more than one alcoholic beverage per day and that men limit themselves to two alcoholic beverages per day.
To make sure your liver is healthy and hepatitis immunizations are up to date, schedule an appointment with Dr. Galati or another gastroenterologist in your area by calling the physician referral line at 281-274-7500.