The number of new liver cancer cases is on the rise, and experts point to increasing rates of chronic viral hepatitis infection as a leading factor. Liver cancer is rarely found at an early stage, it’s difficult to treat and prognosis is poor. But you can take steps to prevent hepatitis infection and protect yourself from liver cancer.
Viral hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, the football-sized organ in your upper abdomen that processes nutrients and filters harmful substances from your blood. Several viruses cause hepatitis, but it’s the hepatitis B, C and D viruses that can cause prolonged illness and chronic infection. Ongoing infection damages the liver and can lead to scarring (cirrhosis) and liver cancer. In the United States, hepatitis B and C are the leading causes of liver cancer.
Hepatitis B and C are spread when the blood or other body fluids of an infected person enter the body of someone who isn’t infected. This may occur through sharing personal care items with family members or others, giving birth, engaging in sexual activity, sharing IV needles or being exposed to needles or other sharp instruments at work (usually among healthcare providers).
Take the following steps to prevent contracting hepatitis:
- Get vaccinated. Hepatitis B can be prevented with a vaccine. No vaccine exists yet for hepatitis C.
- Avoid sharing needles or syringes. If you take injected drugs, never borrow or share supplies.
- Practice safe behaviors. Don’t engage in unprotected sexual activity.
- Don’t share personal care items. Razors, toothbrushes and nail clippers may transmit infected blood.
- Reconsider a tattoo or a body piercing. You could become infected from unclean tools.
- Get tested during pregnancy. Babies born to women with hepatitis B should receive hepatitis B immune globulin and vaccine within 12 hours of birth.
- Be careful. Wear gloves if you must come in contact with blood or instruments that may have blood on them.
If you’ve been exposed to hepatitis, see your healthcare provider right away. Treatment within 24 hours may help you avoid the disease. If hepatitis becomes chronic, your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medications or interferon. You’ll also need to avoid alcohol and certain drugs; refrain from donating blood, tissue or organs; and see your provider regularly to monitor your liver health.