July 02, 2020
Your liver plays a crucial role in your health. It helps you digest food, store energy, and remove poisons. Hepatitis is the inflammation of this important organ, either through drugs, an immune reaction, or a viral infection. Three viruses—hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C—are the most common causes of liver inflammation.
Each virus can cause similar ailments. In addition to inflammation, those suffering from hepatitis A, B, or C may experience loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach pain. An infected person’s urine may be dark in color and their bowel movements may be pale. Additionally, a person with hepatitis may have jaundice, a condition that can cause your eyes and skin to turn yellow.
All three viruses vary in the severity of symptoms experienced, and there are treatments available for each of them. While the viruses share a common set of symptoms and have similar courses, the ways in which they spread are different.
Hepatitis A is spread entirely by contact with the stool of an infected person. Most people carrying the virus don’t have symptoms or think they’re just experiencing the flu. The virus can be contracted by eating food washed in untreated water or prepared by someone who hasn’t washed their hands after using the bathroom. Drinking untreated water, putting things in your mouth that have been in contact with an infected person’s stool, or having close physical contact with someone infected are also common ways the virus spreads.
Travel to areas with poor sanitation can increase the risk of contracting hepatitis A. It can also be spread by restaurants experiencing an outbreak, potentially through raw shellfish polluted with sewage. Those infected with hepatitis A typically recover without treatment in a few weeks; if symptoms are extreme or persistent, doctors can prescribe medicines to manage symptoms.
The hepatitis B virus has the same flu-like (or absent) symptoms as hepatitis A, but is spread through an infected person’s bodily fluids, such as blood and semen. Unprotected sex and sharing needles can spread hepatitis B. Women who have the hepatitis B virus can pass it on to a baby during birth.
Although it’s also caused by a viral infection, hepatitis B has a long duration—several months. The virus usually gets better during this time, but if not, it can develop into chronic hepatitis B, which lasts for duration of life and can lead to serious problems, including liver failure.
Hepatitis C can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). It’s spread exclusively through the blood of someone with the virus. The most common source of infection is through sharing needles during drug use. Accidental needle sticks in health care, poorly sterilized tattoo and piercing tools, sharing personal care items, unprotected sex, and other contact with blood can also spread the virus.
Most people with hepatitis C cannot fight off an acute infection and develop chronic hepatitis C. Antiviral medications can treat hepatitis C, but without treatment, the virus can lead to liver failure.
Both hepatitis A and hepatitis B have vaccines; the hepatitis A vaccine is a single injection, whereas the hepatitis B vaccine consists of three shots, which most people receive as a baby. At the current time, there is no vaccine available to prevent hepatitis C.
While the symptoms of each hepatitis virus are similar, the differences in how they’re spread are important to be aware of—and vital for taking proper precautions. Practicing healthy habits – like regularly washing your hands and food, practicing safe sex, and being mindful of where and what you’re eating and drinking – can reduce your risk of catching or spreading these viruses.
Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.