What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver. Inflammation is a tissue’s reaction to irritation or injury. It generally results in pain, redness, and swelling.

There are many causes of hepatitis. Viral hepatitis is caused by a virus. Viral hepatitis can either be acute (lasting less than 6 months) or chronic (lasting more than 6 months). Viral hepatitis can be spread from person to person. Some types of viral hepatitis can be spread through sexual contact.

Several viruses are known to cause hepatitis. Common forms of viral hepatitis include:

  • Hepatitis A: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were about 3,050 instances of acute hepatitis A infections in the U.S. in 2012. This form of hepatitis does not lead to a chronic infection and usually has no complications. The liver usually heals from hepatitis A within 2 months. However, occasional deaths from hepatitis A have occurred due to liver failure. Hepatitis A can be prevented by vaccination.
  • Hepatitis B: This form of hepatitis infects between 200,000 and 300,000 people in the U.S. each year, but as many as 1.2 million people might be carrying the disease. More than 70% of all cases of hepatitis B affect young people between the ages of 15 and 39. Most people recover from the virus within 6 months. However, a few cases cause a life-long, chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis causes ongoing damage to the liver. The earlier in life hepatitis B is contracted, the more likely it is to become chronic. People can carry the virus without feeling sick. These people can still spread the virus. Hepatitis B can be prevented by getting a vaccine.
  • Hepatitis C: Hepatitis C is one of the most common causes of liver disease in the U.S., and the number one reason for liver transplant. At least 80% of patients with hepatitis C develop a chronic liver infection. About 3.2 million people in the U.S. are estimated to have chronic hepatitis C infection. It often does not show any symptoms. No vaccine is yet available to prevent hepatitis C.

Most people recover from hepatitis, and the disease is often preventable. However, it is still considered a serious health risk because it can:

  • Destroy liver tissue.
  • Spread easily from person to person.
  • Weaken the body's immune system.
  • Cause the liver to fail.
  • Cause liver cancer.
  • Cause death.

How does someone get or spread hepatitis?

A person can get hepatitis A from eating food or drinking water carrying the virus. A person can get hepatitis B in many ways, including:

  • Having sex with an infected person.
  • Sharing dirty needles.
  • Being in direct contact with infected blood.
  • Getting needle stick injuries.
  • Being transferred from mother to unborn child.
  • Being in contact with an infected person's body fluids.

An infected mother has a high chance of giving hepatitis B to her child during or after birth. All pregnant women should be tested for hepatitis B. Within 12 hours of birth, infants born to mothers with hepatitis B need to receive treatment with hepatitis B antibody and hepatitis B vaccine. This can prevent transmission of hepatitis B from mother to the baby.

A person can get hepatitis C from:

  • Sharing dirty needles.
  • Being in direct contact with infected blood.
  • Getting needle stick injuries.
  • Having sex with an infected person (less common).

Blood products are currently tested for hepatitis B and C, so it is not likely that a person will get hepatitis from receiving them. However, blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992 might have not been tested for hepatitis. If you received a procedure before 1992, you might want to get tested for hepatitis.

Additionally, “baby boomers,” born in the U.S. between 1945 and 1965, are at increased risk of having hepatitis C. If you are part of this group you should be screened for hepatitis C even in the absence of risk factors listed above.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis?

The most common symptoms of hepatitis include:

Contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you have any or a combination of these symptoms.

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