Question of the Week

November 17, 2003


So, you haven't probably spent a lot of time thinking about the...
"Life of a Liver
Twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, your liver (which is located on the right side of your body near your abdomen) performs many tasks to keep your body running smoothly.

  • It's like a vacuum! It cleans out poisons from your blood.
  • It's like a warehouse! It stores vitamins and minerals and makes sure your body gets the right amounts.
  • It's like a bodybuilder! It produces just the right amount of amino acids to build strong, healthy muscles.
  • It's like a gas station! It keeps your body fueled up with just the right amount of glucose (sugar).
  • It's like a meter! It regulates any medicines you are taking. (Before some medicines can work, the liver has to start them up.) It also regulates hormones in your body.
  • It's like a factory! It produces an important digestive liquid called bile."

It may not sound like all that glamorous of an organ, but you can't live without it, and it's worth taking care of. Often, when people think of liver damage, they think of drinking too much. While this is a lifestyle choice that can certainly cause liver damage, have you ever considered:

"Sharing a toothbrush or razor - although sharing may be considered an act of friendship, it's better to use your own because hepatitis can be transmitted through sores on the mouth or cuts on the skin."

Inflammation of the liver, caused by infectious or toxic agents and characterized by jaundice, fever, liver enlargement, and abdominal pain.
Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company."

In the news recently:
"Hepatitis A usually is mild but it can cause fever, exhaustion, vomiting, abdominal pain and, in rare cases, death. As of Saturday, 510 cases of the illness had been confirmed in Pennsylvania, the state health department said on its Web site. On Friday state authorities said one person had died from the illness."

These 510 people have made the news, but...
"An estimated 180,000 hepatitis A infections occur in the United States each year. Hepatitis A is most commonly contracted by mouth through food or water that has been contaminated by fecal matter. It is considered to be the least destructive of the hepatitis viruses because, unlike the other types, it rarely leads to permanent liver damage. Within a few weeks, the symptoms will have gone away on their own and the hepatitis A virus will no longer be in your system."

What is Hepatitis A, and what about other forms of the disease that can be much more serious?

The ABC's of Hepatitis:

"Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. Hepatitis A can affect anyone. In the United States, hepatitis A can occur in situations ranging from isolated cases of disease to widespread epidemics."

"Hepatitis B is a serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the liver. The virus, which is called hepatitis B virus (HBV), can cause lifelong infection, cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, liver cancer, liver failure, and death."

"Hepatitis C is a disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). You may be at risk for hepatitis C and should contact your medical care provider for a blood test if you..."

"Hepatitis D is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis D virus (HDV), a defective virus that needs the hepatitis B virus to exist. Hepatitis D virus (HDV) is found in the blood of persons infected with the virus.

"Hepatitis E is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis E virus (HEV) transmitted in much the same way as hepatitis A virus. Hepatitis E, however, does not occur often in the United States."

The 510 people with Hepatitis A in Pennsylvania have recently made the news, but what about those living (and dieing) with B and C?

"Hepatitis B infects more than 100,000 people in the United States each year, with 70% of new cases occurring in people between the ages of 15 to 39 - and 75% of these people are teens."

"Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Hepatitis C is the most serious type of hepatitis virus and is now the leading cause of liver failure requiring transplantation among adults. It leads to nearly 10,000 deaths each year. An estimated 3.9 million Americans are infected with this virus, most often because of blood products or blood transfusions before 1990, drug use, or unprotected sexual activities. More than 80% of those people will remain infected for the rest of their lives, and 20% of those will go on to develop cirrhosis and liver failure. There is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, and the medications available to treat it are effective in less than 30% of the cases."

The best way to avoid problems resulting from hepatitis, is to avoid contracting it. Vaccines do exist for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, but not currently for hepatitis C. Much of avoidance is lifestyle choices, but nothing is a 100 percent guarantee, and once you have it, you may not even know it's there.

People with chronic hepatitis B or C may not have any symptoms at all. But in some people, chronic hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis occurs when the liver cells die and are replaced by scar tissue and fat. The liver stops working and can't cleanse the body of wastes. People in the early stages of cirrhosis may not have symptoms. When cirrhosis gets worse, symptoms begin. They may include weight loss, fatigue, jaundice, nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure (the liver stops working) and liver cancer.

Questions of the Week:
So, what does all this mean for the daily life of the average teen? Aside from avoiding raw green onions (as news reports have suggested), what other choices can people make to reduce their risk of contracting Hepatitis A? What about Hepatitis B and C? What lifestyle choices increase a persons chances of contracting these viruses? What minor modifications might some people be able to make that could reduce their risks? What major lifestyle changes might others need to make? What information about the various Hepatitis viruses do teens and young adults need to help them make educated, safe, and healthy decisions?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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