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What Is Hepatitis?

If your doctor tells you that you've got hepatitis, you'll need to find out which type he's talking about. There are five kinds, and each has different causes. They share one thing in common: Hepatitis infects your liver and causes it to get inflamed.

What Causes the Different Types?

The type of virus that's causing your hepatitis affects how severe your disease is and how long it lasts.

Hepatitis A. You usually get it when you eat or drink something that's got the virus in it. It's the least risky type because it almost always gets better on its own. It doesn't lead to long-term inflammation of your liver.

Even so, about 20% of people who get hepatitis A get sick enough that they need to go to the hospital. There's a vaccine that can prevent it.

Hepatitis B. This type spreads in several ways.You can get it from sex with someone who's sick or by sharing a needle when using street drugs. The virus also can pass from a mother to her newborn child at birth or soon afterward.

Most adults with hepatitis B get better, but a small percentage can't shake the disease and become carriers, which means they can spread it to others even when their own symptoms disappear.

Hepatitis C. You get this type if you have contact with contaminated blood or needles used to inject illegal drugs or draw tattoos.

Sometimes you don't get any symptoms, or just mild ones. But in some cases hepatitis C leads to cirrhosis, a risky scarring of your liver.

Hepatitis D happens only if you're already infected with hepatitis B. It tends to make that disease more severe.

It's spread from mother to child and through sex.

Hepatitis E mainly spreads in Asia, Mexico, India, and Africa. The few cases that show up in the U.S. are usually in people who return from a country where there are outbreaks of the disease.

Like hepatitis A, you usually get it by eating or drinking something that's been contaminated with the virus.

What Puts You at Risk?

See how viral hepatitis spreads. Discover where the risk is greatest.
See slideshow