The ABCs of Hepatitis: Understanding Different Types of Viral Hepatitis

Hepatitis C is one of a family of viral infections, including hepatitis A and B, that affect the liver. Each disease has similar symptoms but is contracted in different ways.

The most common route of transmission for hepatitis A is through contact with fecal matter from an infected person on an object or in foods and drinks. Most people get over this infection without treatment. "It's a self-limited disease," says Dr. William Carey, director of the Hepatology Center at Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, OH. "Once you recover, you are done and you never get it again." A vaccine for hepatitis A is available and recommended for babies and people traveling to certain countries where the prevalence is high. (Your doctor can test for blood for antibodies that show whether you have ever had hepatitis A.)

Hepatitis B and C are both transmitted through blood; hepatitis B can also be contracted through other bodily fluids, including semen. Both infections begin as an acute infection but can become chronic in some individuals. "Both can put you at risk for cirrhosis and liver cell cancer and the resulting need for a transplant," says Dr. Carey.

The big difference between the two: "The majority of adults -- more than 95 percent -- in the U.S. with hepatitis B get over it on their own," Dr. Carey says. That's not true for infected newborns, infants and children, however, who may never clear the infection.

The modern vaccine for hepatitis B has been available since 1991, however, and is part of the recommended vaccination schedule for infants. It's also advised for other individuals at high risk for the disease, such as healthcare workers and sexually active people who are not in mutually monogamous relationships. So far, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, which was only identified in the 1980s.