Hepatitis is basically inflammation of the liver and not at all comfortable. You feel unpleasant. You can’t stand even the thought of food. Your body is hot and clammy and sweaty. A thrashing headache makes you want to pull the bedclothes over your head and let the world go by.
A chemical called bilirubin, normally produced in the liver and drained into the bowel, is suddenly jammed up as the little tubes permeating the liver are blocked by swollen, damaged, inflamed cells.
Instead of being excreted, the bilirubin, which is a dark-colored material, is absorbed by the bloodstream and circulated all around the body. This causes the eyes (at first) and the skin (later) to assume the yellowish color we call jaundice. That is also why the urine turns brown.
As the blood, flooded with bilirubin, passes through the kidneys, as much bilirubin as possible is filtered off and excreted. It must be eliminated somehow, and this is nature’s efficient second line of excretion.
Because bilirubin now bypasses the bowel, the stools turn a light brown color, being deprived of the normal dark pigment. Bilirubin has a habit of producing skin irritation. After a few days, especially if the skin becomes increasingly yellow, an intense itch often develops.
Hepatitis often occurs in epidemic proportions. It is one of the most common infectious diseases and though frequently worse in summer, it can occur all through the year. Germs may be transmitted by flies in the “fecal-oral” route. Or the virus can get from infected feces to the mouth when hands are not washed after use of the toilet.
That’s one reason it is so important to protect all food and eating utensils from flies. And why hands should always be washed thoroughly before touching food for human consumption.
Many patients have a sub-clinical attack of hepatitis. This means many symptoms may be present, but there may not be jaundice, or enough obvious evidence to pinpoint the true diagnosis. Probably more than half of the hepatitis cases are never diagnosed. The patient merely feels ill for a few days or even weeks, and then slowly recovers.
The body’s defense mechanism really brings a cure, irrespective of how bad or how mild the attack may be. Certain liver tests will clinch the diagnosis if there is any doubt about it.
Then treatment is surprisingly simple. It is aimed at helping nature help you. Bed rest is best in the early, acute days when you feel really ill. You don’t need a doctor to suggest this. Nature will tell you, and sensible people follow their natural instincts.
In years past, doctors were keen to prescribe a stringent diet, devoid of fat and low in protein. But today, ideas have changed and the patient is given whatever he desires. The more attractive the food can be made, the better. Small meals attractively served are the routine today.
Pills and potions? These are out, too. No specific pill will kill the hepatitis virus. Also, because many drugs are broken down in the liver, they just make it work harder at a time when rest is vital. So medication is generally not prescribed, especially sedatives or tranquilizers. Antibiotics are useless.
Alcohol, a potent drug affecting the liver, definitely must be avoided. Many beer drinkers voluntarily give it up for weeks and even years. This adverse reaction to alcohol may persist for surprisingly long periods. Several patients who can’t face a drink 10 years after a good-sized bout of hepatitis. Nausea and vomiting result if they tempt fate.
Doctors often prescribe vitamins in the hope this may give the body’s inbuilt immune system some extra power. They may help. Plenty of fluids are suggested, for these help to whisk away unwanted poisons from the body. In some severe cases, hospitalization is needed, and steroid medication given, but this is not usual.
Anyone who has been in touch with a hepatitis sufferer may be given a large shot of gamma globulin, for this increases a person’s resistance to picking up the virus and developing a true infection.
Another kind of hepatitis is also becoming more common. This is called Hepatitis B. It takes longer to develop and is much more serious and insidious. It usually comes when a person carrying a blood factor called HBsAg (also known as the Australia antigen) infects another person. This may occur when infected needles are used for tattooing, piercing ears or with drugs.
A serum called Hepatitis B Immune Globulin has been developed to help protect persons open to infection from Hepatitis B.