When your daily responsibilities involve taking care of someone with hepatitis, learning how to protect yourself — and others — is paramount. As a healthcare professional, you can take certain measures to reduce your risk of infection. Understanding how hepatitis is spread is the first step.
Hepatitis from A Through E
“People are very confused about the different types of hepatitis,” notes Thelma King Thiel, RN, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Hepatitis Foundation International.
The five identified types of viral hepatitis — A, B, C, D, and E — all cause inflammation of the liver, but they vary in severity and how they are transmitted.
- Hepatitis A. This type generally does not lead to chronic infection. Hepatitis A is typically contracted when a person eats food or drinks water contaminated with the virus.
- Hepatitis B. This type may cause a mild illness lasting only a few weeks, or it can progress to a chronic condition. Chronic hepatitis B can lead to liver disease or eventually, in some cases, liver cancer. The hepatitis B virus is transmitted from person to person by infected blood, semen, and other body fluids.
- Hepatitis C. This type usually progresses from an acute illness to a chronic condition. Chronic hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis of the liver as well as liver cancer. The hepatitis C virus is most often transmitted by coming into contact with infected blood.
- Hepatitis D. This serious liver disease is transmitted by contact with infected blood. Hepatitis D can only infect a person who is already infected with hepatitis B.
- Hepatitis E. This virus usually causes an acute (short term) infection. Hepatitis E is transmitted by ingesting fecal matter that contaminates water or food.
Because hepatitis B and C are typically slow-progressing illnesses, they may take decades to manifest themselves but then can become serious chronic infections. Many infected people have virtually no symptoms initially. As a result, a person could be infected — and unknowingly spread the virus to others — for years. A simple blood test can detect hepatitis and identify the type of virus.
Although hepatitis cannot be spread through casual contact like shaking hands, it can be transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids. The odds of spreading the virus increase anytime the skin is broken.
Tattooing and body piercing are also cited as potentially risky behaviors, if done at unregulated sites where the equipment being used is unsterile, or shared. You can also advise your patients and their caregivers that they can become infected by sharing anything that could be contaminated with infected blood, such as:
- Nail clippers
Protect Yourself and Others From Hepatitis
Being aware of how hepatitis is spread can help protect healthcare professionals from hepatitis. You can also share this information with your patients and their caregivers.
Healthcare professionals and anyone who are caring for hepatitis patients are at greater risk of contracting hepatitis than the general population. Because of this, healthcare professionals should get vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B to adequately protect themselves from these diseases. These vaccines are effective. In fact, routine use of the vaccines has dramatically reduced the number of newly reported cases of hepatitis A and B. To date, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
In addition to getting vaccinated, healthcare workers can protect themselves from hepatitis by following these simple steps:
- Hand washing. Always remember that it’s the soap that washes the dirt away, not the water. Be sure to wash thoroughly using both soap and water.
- Cover up when cleaning up. When caregiving requires handling anything that may have come into contact with infected body fluids, including diapers and soiled clothes or linens, wear gloves. Use proper techniques for cleaning and removing the affected items. Also remember to bandage any cuts, abrasions, and even bruises immediately.
- Clean with bleach. The hepatitis B virus can live up to 10 days on a dry surface, and the hepatitis C virus can live up to four days on a dry surface. Clean items that may have infected blood on them using a 1-to-10 mix of bleach and water — this is effective at killing both types of virus.
- Take extra precautions when traveling. When traveling in or caring for someone from a developing country or region with high rates of infection, take extra care to protect yourself and to prevent the spread of hepatitis. Always wash your hands with warm water and soap, especially after using the toilet, changing a diaper, or handling food (including during meals). If the water is likely to be contaminated, use a hand sanitizer.
- Protecting yourself from hepatitis will make you a more effective caregiver. Keep in mind that a person with one type of hepatitis can still contract another form of the disease. Taking proper sanitary precautions will help you avoid spreading additional strains of hepatitis to your patient and to others.
This Hepatitis Awareness Month, you protect yourself and your fellow healthcare professionals by learning more about Hepatitis. At AchieveCE, we have the course just for you!