What do hepatitis B and C have in common?

Hepatitis is a family of viruses that infect the liver. There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B infections, but not for hepatitis C.
Hepatitis is a family of viruses that infect the liver. There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B infections, but not for hepatitis C.

Hepatitis is a family of viruses that infect the liver. While hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C can all cause short-term infections, hepatitis B and C can also lead to chronic, long-term infections that severely damage the liver over time. This can cause cirrhosis — or scarring — of the liver, liver-related cancer, or complete liver failure, especially if you have hepatitis B.

Vaccines exist, but only for hepatitis A and B infections. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Both the hepatitis B and C viruses can lead to mild infections that your immune system can fight off. But, in over half of all cases, the infection doesn’t go away, and the virus remains in your body for a much longer period.

You might not experience any symptoms during a chronic hepatitis B or C infection. But because hepatitis is contagious, you may inadvertently transmit it to others. That's why it’s very important to get tested if you think that you might have been exposed.

If you've had a long-term infection, the effects of hepatitis B or C may not surface until many years — sometimes decades — later. One of the first effects you might feel involve damage to your liver. Generally speaking, the younger you are at the time of a viral hepatitis infection, the more likely that it'll become chronic.

How are hepatitis B and C transmitted?

A key difference between hepatitis B and C is the way they are transmitted. Hepatitis B is typically transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids like blood and semen, while Hepatitis C can only be transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. 

This means that needle sharing is a big problem for the spread of both of these viruses, especially since most people are symptomless and don’t know that they're infected.

Hepatitis C is much more limited in how it can be spread. By contrast, hepatitis B can be spread several ways, including:

  • Birth: can be transmitted to a newborn during childbirth.
  • Sex: can be transmitted to or contracted from a partner through intercourse.
  • Sharing Items of Personal Hygiene: can be transmitted to or contracted from anyone through the use of items like razors and toothbrushes.

The hepatitis B vaccine

The first version of the hepatitis B vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981. Since the early 1990s, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that all countries add the vaccine to their public immunization plans.

Several types of approved hepatitis B vaccines are available, including one suitable for people of all ages, from infants to adults. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone under age 19 get the vaccine, with infants receiving the first dose at birth. The agency also recommends that most adults get the vaccine, especially those who:

  • have sexual or common household contact with someone with hepatitis B
  • have more than one sexual partner
  • have experienced sexual abuse
  • are likely to be in contact with blood and bodily fluids at work
  • have other liver conditions, including hepatitis C
  • are being treated for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV

The most common version of the vaccine requires three separate doses. There's also a version that the FDA approved for adults that only requires two doses.

You can get the hepatitis B vaccine at the same time as other vaccines. You'll never catch hepatitis B from the vaccine.

Combination vaccines also exist that protect against both hepatitis A and B. Once you're vaccinated against hepatitis B, you should be immune for the rest of your life and won't need a booster. 

Is there a hepatitis C vaccine?

No vaccine exists for hepatitis C right now. While efforts to develop a vaccine for this specific strain are ongoing, it's proven challenging. That's because hepatitis C tends to avoid immune responses. In other words, a person can catch hepatitis C repeatedly despite past infection, which is what makes it hard to create a vaccine that works for this virus.

There is an effective treatment for hepatitis C, though, and it involves direct-acting antivirals (DAAs). Thanks to this treatment, WHO aims to cut 80% of hepatitis C cases worldwide by 2030. Researchers across the globe think that a vaccine is needed to accomplish this goal, so creating one is a high priority.

When to talk to your doctor

You may not realize that you've come in contact with hepatitis B or C because oftentimes there aren't any symptoms. You should get tested if you've been in any situation that presents a risk of infection, like sharing needles. The CDC also recommends that all pregnant women get tested for hepatitis C.

Some people can be allergic to the hepatitis B vaccine, so you should also see your doctor if you experience any bad reactions after getting one of the doses.

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Medically Reviewed on 11/3/2021
References
SOURCES:

BMC Medicine: "The case for a universal hepatitis C vaccine to achieve hepatitis C elimination."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Hepatitis B," "Hepatitis B Questions and Answers for the Public," "Hepatitis B VIS," "Hepatitis C."

Hepatitis B Foundation: "Vaccine for Hepatitis B."

Journal of Clinical and Translational Hepatology: "Hepatitis B Vaccine and Immunoglobin: key concepts."

Vaccines: "Hepatitis C virus vaccine: challenges and prospects."