Frequently Asked Questions About Hepatitis

What is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis means "inflammation of the liver". There are seven known types of hepatitis, but it is usually caused by one of three viruses: Hepatitis A, B or C. The effects of each virus are different. In some cases viral Hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), which can lead to serious life-threatening diseases including cancer of the liver. People can die from Hepatitis.

What are the differences among Hepatitis A, B, and C?

Hepatitis A (HAV) is caused by a virus found in feces (people's stool). You can get it by coming in contact with infected feces. The most common way is by swallowing food or liquids that get contaminated by hands that are not washed thoroughly after using the toilet. You can also get Hepatitis A through sexual acts like 'rimming' (licking someone's anus) or via oral sex on a male's penis after he has had anal sex.

Almost everyone infected with Hepatitis A completely recovers in about 4 to 8 weeks. Although there are not always symptoms, you may suffer from nausea, vomiting, jaundice (yellow skin and/or eyes), diarrhea, and/or extreme lack of energy. Hepatitis A is rarely dangerous unless accompanied by Hepatitis C. You can pass Hepatitis A to another person even if there are no symptoms. After recovery of Hepatitis A you can not spread it to others and you will be immune from getting it again. The immune system develops antibodies that can fight off future exposure.

Hepatitis B (HBV) is caused by a virus that lives in body fluids that include blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. You can get it by having unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone infected with Hepatitis B. There is also high risk in sharing needles (tattoos, ear-piercing, drug needles). Because it is transmitted so easily through body fluids, you can also get it by touching someone's open sore or cut with your own open sore or cut, or by sharing items (toothbrushes, razors, etc). Hepatitis can also be passed from a pregnant mother to her child.

When infected with Hepatitis B, the sickness may start gradually, usually lasting a month or two. Some people have no symptoms, but they can include yellow skin or eyes, feeling tired, fever, loss of appetite, stomach pain, nausea, swollen glands, pain in the joints, dark urine, skin rash, weight loss, liver pain (upper right side of the belly just below the rib cage). Only about 1% of people with HBV die, and most people recover completely within about 6 months. However, about 5-10% of people remain capable of spreading the virus for the rest of their lives and can develop chronic liver disease.

Hepatitis C (HCV) is caused by a virus found in the blood. Although some information about how this is passed from person to person is not clear, it is very clear that it is transmitted through blood to blood contact, such as sharing needles (to inject drugs, or for tatoos , ear-piercing, etc.). In the past, some people got Hepatitis C from blood transfusions, but today the risk is small, since blood for transfusions is screened. In a few instances, a woman has passed the virus to her baby during pregnancy or birth, but this is not common.

Most people do not realize they are infected with Hepatitis C. Very few people develop the usual symptoms of jaundice, fever, and flu-like symptoms that can last up to 6 weeks, right after getting infected. Others discover they're infected years later when they get sick and testing confirms the virus. A large percentage of people (75-80%) with Hepatitis C never clear the virus out of their body and continue to infect others.

What are the signs and symptoms of active Hepatitis infection?

Unfortunately, Hepatitis often goes undiagnosed because symptoms are mild or suggest only a flu-like illness. Many people have no symptoms at all. The only way to know for sure if you have Hepatitis is to have a blood test. Ask a doctor or needle exchange site where you can get tested, or call the National Hepatitis Hotline at 1-800-465-4837. You are usually safe to get tested within two weeks after potential exposure to know for sure.

Symptoms can include fatigue, mild fever, muscle or joint aches, nausea/vomiting, loss of appetite, mild stomach pain, loss of taste for cigarettes, diarrhea, dark urine, light-colored stools, and jaundice (skin and/or the of the eyes look yellow).

Is there a vaccine, treatment, or a cure for Hepatitis?

There are vaccines that can keep you from getting Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B. There is currently no vaccine for Hepatitis C. The vaccine for Hepatitis A consists of two shots over 6 months. The Hepatitis B vaccine consists of 3 shots over 5-6 months. To get full protection (immunity) against Hepatitis A or B, you must get all of the shots in each series.

Almost everyone infected with Hepatitis A completely recovers in about 4 to 8 weeks. There is no medication for Hepatitis A. Rest and avoiding things that are toxic to your liver (like alcohol), help the healing process. In severe cases that require hospitalization, there are medicines that can lessen the symptoms. Today, you can receive a series of three shots over six months that will vaccinate your for both Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B infections. Talk to your primary care provider or your local sexual health clinic.

There is no cure for Hepatitis B or C. However, there are treatments that can help improve the symptoms of Hepatitis B and C.

Many people use alternative or complimentary therapies such as acupuncture, herbs and vitamins to treat Hepatitis A, B, and C. Although some people report that these therapies work, their effectiveness has yet to be scientifically proven.

Where can I get Hepatitis A and B vaccines?

It is always a good idea to get screened for Hepatitis A or B antibodies before you get vaccinated to make sure you aren't already infected. Any health provider should be able to screen you or provide you with the vaccines. Some clinics will only vaccinate you if you are a certain age, if you ask, or if you are a regular patient. If you do not have a regular health provider or are having trouble finding one who will vaccinate you, you can ask your local city or county health department where to go. You can also call the National Hepatitis Hotline at 1-800-465-4837.

How can I avoid getting Hepatitis?

To prevent getting Hepatitis A:

  • Get vaccinated,
  • Be careful only to eat food prepared under clean conditions,
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom and before cooking or eating, and
  • Use protection when having sex (condoms, dental dams, latex gloves) especially when practicing anal sex, or combinations of anal-oral sex.

To prevent getting Hepatitis B:

  • Get vaccinated,
  • Use protection when having sex (condoms, dental dams, latex gloves),
  • Do not share needles of any kind with others, and
  • Use new, sterile syringes and equipment .

To prevent getting Hepatitis C:

  • Avoid contact with other people's blood,
  • Do not share needles of any kind with others, and
  • Don't share toothbrushes, razors, or other personal articles that might contain blood.

How can I learn more about hepatitis?