The liver is an amazing organ. About a third of a person’s blood passes through it every minute.
The liver’s main job is to remove toxins from the bloodstream, but it has many other functions, including the production of clotting and immunity proteins. It also houses a huge number of infection-fighting cells.
It’s the largest organ in the body, about the size of a football, and is in the right upper part of the abdomen. A functioning liver is necessary for life.
Hepatitis is the medical term for inflammation of the liver. There are many causes of hepatitis, such as excessive alcohol consumption, adverse medication effects and the ingestion of toxins. Some viruses can also cause liver inflammation.
Symptoms of viral hepatitis may include fever, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, jaundice (or yellowing of the eyes), dark urine, fatigue and confusion. Severe inflammation can cause the liver to fail, necessitating a liver transplant to prevent death. The most common viruses that cause liver damage are hepatitis A, B and C.
People infected with hepatitis A can become extremely ill but usually recover. The illness usually lasts about two months but sometimes stretches out to six months. Hepatitis A is passed in the feces and is spread through contaminated food and water or by close personal contact.
A person with the virus can transmit it, even without signs or symptoms of infection. Hepatitis A infection does not have a treatment other than supportive care, such as providing intravenous hydration and close monitoring. Lifelong immunity occurs after infection and also with vaccination.
Fortunately, a safe and effective vaccine has been available since 1995. It’s routinely given to children, international travelers and to anyone who wants to be protected.
On the other hand, Hepatitis B often causes a smoldering infection that may go a lifetime. This virus is found in blood and acquired through unprotected intercourse, sharing needles or accidental needle sticks, especially in health care related occupations.
Infected mothers can pass the virus to infants at birth. Chronic hepatitis B infection can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer over time. Similar to hepatitis A, a vaccine is available to prevent this infection. (Yes, a vaccine to prevent cancer.)
Since 1991, the vaccine has been routinely given to infants. In adults, vaccination is recommended for those with chronic liver disease, diabetes, chronic excessive alcohol use, HIV and kidney disease requiring dialysis.
Lastly, more than four million people in the United States have or have had hepatitis C. Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C is found in blood and is transmitted via the same mechanisms. It can also lead to chronic liver disease (e.g., cirrhosis, liver failure and cancer).
Although no vaccine exists to prevent hepatitis C, people do have effective treatments to eliminate the virus. Everyone ages 18 through 79 years old should be tested for this virus.
You can keep your liver healthy by maintaining a healthy weight, using alcohol responsibly, avoiding high-risk behaviors and getting vaccinated.
Vaccine Smarts is written by Sealy Institute for Vaccine Sciences faculty members Drs. Megan Berman, an associate professor of internal medicine, and Richard Rupp, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch. For questions about vaccines, email firstname.lastname@example.org.