Viral Hepatitis: What You Need to Know About Risk and Prevention

July 27, 2022 Providence Health Team

[5 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • July 28 is World Hepatitis Day, an opportunity to increase our awareness and understanding of a viral disease that has been silently spreading at a rapid pace for nearly a decade.

  • There are five different types of viral hepatitis, and they impact the body in different ways.

  • Providence Liver and Pancreas Center can offer comprehensive care to protect your liver function if you’re diagnosed with hepatitis.

It may be one of the least recognized — and most widespread — global health crises. It’s viral hepatitis, and it’s the No. 1 cause of chronic liver disease and other liver-related problems worldwide.

While world health leaders have focused on other urgent problems, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and — most recently — COVID-19, viral hepatitis has silently spread to infect hundreds of millions on all continents. In fact, a hepatitis-related illness claims a life every 30 seconds. Consequently, there’s a significant need to increase awareness of the virus and the impact it can have.

July 28 is World Hepatitis Day. It’s a good time to share knowledge about the types of viral hepatitis, as well as the symptoms it can cause. Learning more can play a big role in reaching the World Health Organization’s goal of eliminating most new cases by 2030.

Understanding your risks and the signs can let you know when you should talk with your doctor about prevention and available treatment options.

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is inflammation in your liver, your body’s largest internal organ. Your liver is responsible for processing nutrients, managing sugars and fats, and eliminating toxins. Over time, liver infection, inflammation, and damage can lead to scarring (fibrosis) or hardening (cirrhosis) that can cause cancer or death.

Most hepatitis infections are caused by a virus. It spreads in a variety of ways, including through contaminated food and water, close physical contact, sex, or contact with infected blood. There are five types of viral hepatitis that cause liver disease. All types are treatable, but not all are curable. 

In many cases, people don’t even know they’ve been infected with the virus so they can unknowingly pass it along. In fact, up to 90% of people are unaware they’ve contracted viral hepatitis. If symptoms do appear, they typically show up between two weeks to six months after infection. These signs include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Jaundice
  • Joint pain
  • Light-color stool
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

What are the types of viral hepatitis?

It’s possible to be infected with one of five strains — A, B, C, D and E. They each impact the body in different ways.

The differences between the strains are:

  • Hepatitis A: Infections occur most often in low- and middle-income countries with poor sanitary conditions, but U.S. outbreaks are also common among people experiencing homelessness. Cases are caused by contaminated food and water or certain types of sexual activity. It doesn’t cause chronic liver disease, and most people make a full recovery within several months. However, some cases can be severe and life-threatening.
  • Hepatitis B: This viral strain spreads through blood and semen. Most cases occur from sexual contact or sharing contaminated needles, including tattooing, piercing, or injectable drug use. It’s possible, though, for mothers to pass the virus to their babies during childbirth. It can cause a chronic liver infection that puts people at a higher risk of death from cirrhosis or liver cancer. Chronic infection is more common in children infected at birth or under age 5.
  • Hepatitis C: This strain is a bloodborne infection caused by exposure to contaminated needles (either medically or through injectable drug use), mother-to-child transmission in childbirth, transfusion of blood carrying the virus, and sexual contact. It isn’t spread through hugging, kissing, or sharing food. Most cases are symptomless, but approximately 70% of people exposed will develop chronic infection, increasing their risk of cirrhosis.
  • Hepatitis D: Infection with this type, called “delta hepatitis,” causes liver inflammation and is only possible in people who already have hepatitis B. It’s spread through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids or blood. It only occurs in 5% of people infected with hepatitis but carrying both viruses is particularly dangerous because it speeds up any development of liver cancer or liver-related death.
  • Hepatitis E: Like hepatitis A, this viral strain also causes liver inflammation and spreads through contaminated food and water. Most people fully recover within two to six weeks. In rare circumstances, some patients can develop acute liver failure (fulminant hepatitis) that requires hospitalization.

What is the global impact of hepatitis?

Globally, the hepatitis problem is growing. Currently, according to the World Health Organization, there are roughly 354 million people living with either hepatitis B or C worldwide. That number has been increasing annually for a decade.

Hepatitis B and C account for most cases, impacting 296 million and 58 million people, respectively. Less is known about how many people have types A, D, and E. These infections, mostly B and C, lead to approximately 1.34 million deaths every year, up 22 percent since 2000.

The situation is the same in the United States. After declining for a decade, hepatitis cases have skyrocketed in recent years. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of reported hepatitis C cases quadrupled. Even efforts to prevent hepatitis B have stalled, leading to a 114% increase in cases from 2006 to 2013.

How can hepatitis be prevented or treated?

If you’re concerned about your risk of being exposed to or contracting hepatitis, you can determine your risk online and then talk with your doctor. Fortunately, there are many ways to lower your risk to prevent infection.

Follow these measures if you work in an environment where you could be exposed, such as a daycare center, nursing home, or restaurant, or if you feel you engage in behaviors that increase your chances for exposure:

  • Get the hepatitis A and B vaccines (there is no vaccine for hepatitis C)
  • Practice good personal hygiene, including thorough handwashing with soap and warm water
  • Drink bottled water while traveling
  • Don’t share needles to take drugs of any kind
  • Don’t share personal items with someone infected with the virus
  • Be cautious when getting tattoos or piercings
  • Be cautious when traveling in areas with poor sanitation
  • Use a condom during sex

If you are diagnosed with hepatitis, treatment is available. The therapy you receive will depend on the strain of virus you have:

  • Hepatitis A: There is a vaccine for hepatitis A. If you’re unvaccinated, most cases are short-lived and won’t require any treatment. If you’re infected and are uncomfortable and vomiting, however, your doctor might suggest a temporary diet that will help you stay hydrated and well-nourished.
  • Hepatitis B: Like hepatitis A, there is a vaccine for hepatitis B. However, if you’re infected and develop chronic hepatitis, you will need antiviral medications for several months or years, as well as regular medical evaluations and monitoring.
  • Hepatitis C: Antiviral medications can help with both acute and chronic hepatitis C infection. Your doctor can help you determine which combination of antivirals will work best for you. If you’ve developed cirrhosis or liver disease, you could be a candidate for a liver transplant.
  • Hepatitis D: A 48-week treatment called pegylated interferon alpha can be used to potentially slow the progression of liver disease. However, it can cause severe side effects and shouldn’t be used in patients who have cirrhosis or those with autoimmune diseases or psychiatric conditions.
  • Hepatitis E: There isn’t a specific course of treatment for this strain since most people recover without any problems. Your doctor will likely tell you to get rest, drink plenty of fluids, eat a healthy diet, and avoid alcohol.

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Related resources

Hepatitis C and liver disease — should you be concerned?

Ask the expert: All about hepatitis C

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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