What Is Viral Hepatitis?
Viral hepatitis is an inflammation of your liver that's caused by a virus. There are five types, but the most common ones in the U.S. are hepatitis A, B, and C. All of them affect your liver. Some of the symptoms are similar, but they have different treatments.
Hepatitis A. This type won't lead to long-term infection and usually doesn't cause any complications. Your liver heals in about 2 months. You can prevent it with a vaccine.
Hepatitis B. Most people recover from this type in 6 months. Sometimes, though, it causes a long-term infection that could lead to liver damage. Once you've got the disease, you can spread the virus even if you don't feel sick. You won't catch it if you get a vaccine.
Hepatitis C. Many people with this type don't have symptoms. About 80% of those with the disease get a long-term infection. It can sometimes lead to cirrhosis, a scarring of the liver. There's no vaccine to prevent it.
How Do You Get Hepatitis A?
The main way you get hepatitis A is when you eat or drink something that has the hep A virus in it. A lot of times this happens in a restaurant. If an infected worker there doesn't wash their hands well after using the bathroom, and then touches food, they could pass the disease to you.
Food or drinks you buy at the supermarket can sometimes cause the disease, too. The ones most likely to get contaminated are:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Ice and water
Another way you can get hep A is when you have sex with someone who has it.
How Do You Get Hepatitis B?
You also can get it if you:
- Share dirty needles when using illegal drugs
- Have direct contact with infected blood or the body fluids of someone who's got the disease, for instance by using the same razor or toothbrush as someone who has hepatitis B, or touching the open sores of somebody who's infected.
- If you're pregnant and you've got hepatitis B, you could give the disease to your unborn child. If you deliver a baby who's got it, they need to get treatment in the first 12 hours after birth.
How Do You Get Hepatitis C?
Just like hepatitis B, you can get this type by sharing needles or having contact with infected blood. You can also catch it by having sex with somebody who's infected, but that's less common.
If you had a blood transfusion before new screening rules were put in place in 1992, you are at risk for hepatitis C. If not, the blood used in transfusions today is safe. It gets checked beforehand to make sure it's free of the virus that causes hepatitis B and C.
It's rare, but if you're pregnant and have the disease, it's possible to pass it to your newborn.
There are some myths out there about how you get hepatitis C, so let's set the record straight. It's not spread by food and water (like hep A). And you can’t spread it by doing any of these things:
How Do I Know If I Have Viral Hepatitis?
The best-known symptom is jaundice, which can make your skin or the whites of your eyes turn yellow.
But not everyone who has hepatitis gets jaundice. You might just feel like you have the flu -- weak, tired, and sick to your stomach. These symptoms are common for many types of hepatitis:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pain
- Dark-colored urine
- Light-colored bowel movements
- Joint pain
See your doctor as soon as possible if you have any of these symptoms.
Sometimes, people have no symptoms. To be sure you have hepatitis, you’ll need to get tested.
How Long Before I Have Symptoms?
Many people have mild symptoms or no symptoms, which is why hepatitis is sometimes called a “silent” disease.
Hepatitis A. The symptoms usually show up 2 to 6 weeks after the virus enters your body. They usually last for less than 2 months, though sometimes you can be sick for as long as 6 months.
Some warning signs that you may have hepatitis A are:
Hepatitis B. The symptoms are the same as hepatitis A, and you usually get them 3 months after you're infected. They could show up, though, anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months later.
Sometimes the symptoms are mild and last just a few weeks. For some people, the hep B virus stays in the body and leads to long-term liver problems.
Hepatitis C. The early symptoms are the same as hepatitis A and B, and they usually happen 6 to 7 weeks after the virus gets in your body. But you could notice them anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months later.
For about 25% of people who get hep C, the virus goes away on its own without treatment. In other cases, it sticks around for years. When that happens, your liver might get damaged.
Remember, it's possible to spread all the types of hepatitis even if you don't show any signs of being sick.
Should I Get Tested?
If your doctor thinks you have hepatitis, there are blood tests to tell if you have type A, B, C, or another type called D. You should get lab results back within a few days.
Some types of hepatitis get better on their own. Others turn into chronic cases and can damage the liver and cause liver cancer. If your doctor thinks you could have chronic hepatitis B or C, they may perform a liver biopsy. That means they'll remove a very tiny piece of your liver with a needle, then send it to a lab to check for liver damage.
The sooner you're tested for a chronic form of hepatitis, the sooner you can take medicine to reduce or stop the damage the virus can cause to your liver.
Many people with hepatitis C don't have symptoms, so they don't know they're infected. That’s why it’s so important to see a doctor and get tested. Chronic hepatitis C testing is recommended for anyone who:
- Was born from 1945 through 1965
- Received blood-clotting factor drugs before 1987
- Received blood transfusions or an organ transplant before 1992
- Has been on dialysis for many years
- Injected illegal drugs, even once
- Has HIV
- Has a known exposure to hepatitis C (such as a health care worker stuck by a needle with blood that is hepatitis C-positive or received an organ or blood transfusion from a donor who has hepatitis C)
- Was born to a mother who had hepatitis C
Can Hepatitis Be Treated?
If you have hepatitis A, your doctor will carefully see how well your liver is working, but there aren't any treatments.
There are several drugs that treat long-term hepatitis B, such as:
- Adefovir (Hepsera)
- Entecavir (Baraclude)
- Lamivudine (Epivir HBV)
- Pegylated Interferon (Pegasys)
- Telbivudine (Tyzeka)
- Tenofovir (Viread)
If you have long-term hepatitis B, you might be a "carrier," which means you can infect others.
Medications called direct-acting antiviral (DAA) treatments can cure many people with hepatitis C. If you haven't been treated before, your doctor may suggest these drugs for hepatitis C:
Is There a Vaccine to Protect Me From Hepatitis?
The CDC recommends that all children get hepatitis A and B vaccines. Adults should get vaccinated if they travel to a country where there are outbreaks or if they're at high risk for the disease.
How Long Do the Viruses That Cause Hepatitis Survive Outside the Body?
The hepatitis A virus can live outside the body for months.
Hepatitis B survives for at least 7 days while still being able to cause an infection.
Hepatitis C can live on household and clinic surfaces for up to 6 weeks at room temperature. In open air, it can survive for at least 4 days.
If I Have Hepatitis, How Can I Avoid Giving It to Someone Else?
If you have hepatitis B and C, you need to find ways to keep others from making contact with your blood. Follow these tips:
- Cover your cuts or blisters.
- Carefully throw away used bandages, tissues, tampons, and sanitary napkins.
- Don't share your razor, nail clippers, or toothbrush.
- If your blood gets on objects, clean them with household bleach and water.
- Don't breastfeed if your nipples are cracked or bleeding.
- Don't donate blood, organs, or sperm.
- If you inject drugs, don't share needles or other equipment.