Most commonly, when people talk about the hepatitis virus, they refer to the more common hepatitis A or B. Hence, it may be a surprise to know that hepatitis E, which is uncommon in the United States, also exists. Here is some general information about this virus.
What Is It?
Hepatitis E is a very serious liver disease caused by the hepatitis E virus, also known as HEV. It is a spherical shaped RNA virus, and is classified as a Hepevirus. It became recognized as a human disease in the 1980s, but other animals can also become infected with this virus as well. As opposed to other forms of hepatitis, HEV causes a short, acute illness rather than a chronic one.
This virus is considered uncommon in the United States due to a well-developed sewage and sanitation system, but it is prevalent in developing countries, such as Africa, Asia, and Central America. If an infection does occur, it is usually from traveling to such places. There is currently no vaccination available against HEV, but scientists are working on it.
Hepatitis E is a waterborne virus and is most often transferred through food or water contaminated by fecal matter from an infected being. A person can even get the virus through consumption of undercooked seafood from contaminated water. Usually, those who live in environments with poor sanitation are at the highest risk of getting hepatitis E, as well as males between 15 and 44 years old. Fortunately, those who are infected with hepatitis E almost always recover completely (with the exception of pregnant women).
Symptoms And Signs
A person may become infected with the hepatitis E virus for 3 to 8 weeks before showing any symptoms. The signs and symptoms of hepatitis E are similar to infections caused by other hepatitis viruses. They may include, but are not limited to:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Jaundice of the skin
- Sclera of the eyes
- Dark colored urine
- Stool may have a pale red color
- Anorexia or loss of appetite
- Enlarged, tender liver
- Pain in the joints
Sometimes, there may be no symptoms at all, especially in young children, and the disease can go undiagnosed.
Hepatitis E is a short-lived disease that causes acute inflammation. Unlike other forms of hepatitis, hepatitis E does not cause chronic infection unless someone receives a transplanted organ already affected with hepatitis E. Fortunately, those who become infected almost always recover fully from the illness, with the exception of pregnant women.
If a woman who is pregnant contracts the virus, her mortality rate increases to about 20 percent in the third trimester. Pregnant women who do survive the illness without treatment can give premature births that can cause birth defects in the baby. Hence, if you are pregnant and are experiencing liver problems, be sure to get emergency medical attention immediately.
Typically, a physician will administer a blood test to determine which hepatitis virus is causing the signs and symptoms of the disease, as hepatitis infections, in general, have similar symptoms. An antibody test may also be administered and heightened levels of hepatitis E antibodies will be looked for. Since this virus is more prevalent in developing countries, an epidemic outbreak can also be used as a diagnostic tool if blood tests are not available.
Here are some tips to reduce the risk of contracting hepatitis E:
- When traveling abroad, do not drink tap water or any water source in the wilderness (such as rivers, streams, etc).
- If tap water is the only available water for consumption, be sure to boil or disinfect the water prior to drinking.
- Cook all food thoroughly before eating.
- If you come in contact with a person suffering from jaundice, be sure to disinfect yourself, as appropriate, to minimize risks.
- Wash hands frequently (especially after using a public bathroom, changing diapers, etc).
- Practice good personal hygiene and sanitation habits.
- Properly dispose of waste to avoid future contamination of water sources.
There is currently no treatment for hepatitis E, as most affected individuals recover completely, and antibodies do not work against viruses. Plenty of home rest is generally recommended for a speedy recovery, along with nutritional foods and proper fluids. However, alcohol and other liver damaging substances should all be avoided during the recovery time, as the virus attacks the liver.