Understanding Hepatitis -- Basics and Prevention

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on September 20, 2023
5 min read

If your doctor tells you that you've got hepatitis, you'll need to find out which type they are 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.

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 mothers to their 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 can be 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.

There are many ways to prevent hepatitis, from getting a vaccine to washing your hands well. But it all depends on what type you have. Here are some tips for preventing the three major kinds of this liver disease -- hepatitis A, B, and C -- and explanations of how one spreads in a different way.

How to prevent hepatitis A: You can get hepatitis A if you eat food or drink water that has the hepatitis A virus in it. You could also get infected if you're in close physical contact with someone who has the disease or have sex with someone who has it.

The best way to prevent hepatitis A is to get a vaccine. Kids should get a shot around their first birthday.

As an adult, you should get the shot if you:

  • Travel to Africa, Asia (except Japan), the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America, Mexico, and parts of the Caribbean
  • Use recreational drugs
  • Are in the military
  • Work in a day-care center, nursing home, or you're a health care professional
  • Are a man who has sex with men
  • Have long-term liver disease
  • Take blood products to treat hemophilia or other conditions

If you're planning a trip to a place where there are outbreaks of hepatitis A, keep in mind that the vaccine only starts to work 2 to 4 weeks after you get it. And if you want long-term protection, you'll need a follow-up shot 6 to 12 months later.

If you didn't get your hepatitis A vaccine a month before you travel, you may be able to get a shot of hepatitis A immune globulin before you leave. This may prevent hepatitis A infection if you get it within 2 weeks before or after you come into contact with the virus.

If you're traveling to places where the virus is common, be careful about what you eat and drink. Unclean water and ice, as well as fruits, veggies, and undercooked foods, are common causes of hepatitis A infections. This means you should:

  • Avoid "street" food.
  • Only drink bottled water and use it to brush your teeth. You can also boil your tap water for at least 1 minute.
  • Don't sip on cocktails and other drinks with ice cubes.
  • Skip dairy products and undercooked meat and fish.
  • Don't order salads or fresh fruit from restaurants, since you don’t know if it was washed with clean water.
  • Peel and wash your own greens using bottled water.
  • Wash your hands well after you go to the restroom, change diapers, or before you eat or serve food.

Be extra careful if you work at a day-care center or any place where lots of people are in close quarters, especially if you're in contact with an infected person's stool, blood, saliva, or other body fluids.

How to prevent hepatitis B: You can get hepatitis B if you have contact with the blood, semen, or other body fluids of someone who's infected. A common way it spreads is through sex or sharing needles with a person who has the disease.

You can prevent infection with a vaccine. The CDC recommends that babies get their first dose shortly after they're born. They'll need follow-up shots when they're between 6 and 18 months old. Kids under age 19 who missed any shots in the series should get catch-up doses.

If you haven't had a hepatitis B shot as an adult, it's important to get it if you:

  • Have kidney disease, long-term liver disease, or are infected with HIV
  • Have more than one sex partner
  • Are a man who has sex with men
  • Inject illicit drugs
  • Work in health care
  • Live with someone who has hepatitis B
  • Travel to a country with outbreaks of hepatitis B

Besides a vaccine, the best way to prevent hepatitis B is to avoid contact with other people's blood and body fluids. That means:

  • Don't share toothbrushes or razors.
  • Don't use someone else's needle if you inject illicit drugs.
  • Only get tattoos and piercings from shops that can show you how they sterilize their gear.
  • Use a latex or polyurethane condom when you have sex.

You can't get infected with hepatitis B by kissing, hugging, coughing, sneezing, or sharing glasses or silverware.

If you think you may have been infected with hepatitis B and you never had a vaccine, let your doctor know. You may be able to prevent an infection if you get a hepatitis B immune globulin shot. If you think you may have picked up hepatitis B through sex, you'll need to get this shot within 14 days. If your infection is from other causes, you'll need to get the shot within 24 hours.

How to prevent hepatitis C: There's no vaccine for hepatitis C. And because most people don't have symptoms for years, many don't know they've been infected.

Take these steps to protect yourself from catching hepatitis C:

  • If you use illicit drugs, don't share needles.
  • Know your partner's sexual history. If you think they may be infected, get tested.
  • Use a condom when you have sex.