What Is Viral Hepatitis? How You Catch Hepatitis A, B, and C

Reviewed on 12/21/2021

What Is Hepatitis?

Viral infections are the most common cause of hepatitis.

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. It can be caused by several viruses. The main types of hepatitis in the United States are A, B, and C. Hepatitis type A symptoms are often similar to a stomach virus. Most hepatitis A cases resolve within a month. However, Hepatitis B and C can lead to liver cancer or a chronic infection that can lead to serious liver damage called cirrhosis.

Hepatitis A Transmission

Adequate sanitation and good hygiene decrease the risk of spreading hepatitis.

It is easier to contract hepatitis A than hepatitis B and hepatitis C. It is possible to contract hepatitis A by being in close contact with an infected person. The hepatitis A virus is spread via the fecal-oral route of transmission. This involves eating food or consuming a beverage that contains fecal matter of an infected person. This can happen when people do not thoroughly wash their hands after using the restroom and then prepare food or drinks. It is also possible to contract hepatitis A through sexual contact.

Water and Produce

Washing produce thoroughly before eating reduces the risk of contracting hepatitis A.

It is possible to contract hepatitis A by eating uncooked, contaminated fruits and vegetables. Drinking water in developing countries may also be contaminated with the virus. Get in the habit of washing fresh fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating them. If you are visiting a developing country, do not drink the tap water. Drink bottled water instead. Avoid ice as well.

Undercooked and Raw Shellfish

Shellfish grown in polluted water may contain hepatitis A.

Shellfish are animals that filter the water from their surroundings. Because of this, they can become contaminated with hepatitis A virus if they are grown in polluted waters. To be safe, cook shellfish thoroughly before eating it. Undercooked shellfish like oysters, mussels, and clams may harbor and transmit hepatitis A. You may prefer the taste of raw oysters, but cooked shellfish really is safer. Protect your health and skip the raw oyster bar.

Hand Washing

Wash your hands thoroughly to decrease the risk of contracting hepatitis A.

Hepatitis A is a hearty virus that is capable of living outside of the body for up to several months. It is critical to practice good hygiene to reduce your risk of contracting hepatitis A. Wash your hands thoroughly after using the restroom. Carry hand sanitizer with you and use it frequently throughout the day if washing with soap and water is not available. It is especially important to wash your hands before eating or preparing food. Avoid touching faucets, toilet flush handles, and door handles in public restrooms. Flush the toilet with your foot and use a paper towel to turn on and off the faucet and to open the door to minimize your risk of coming into contact with germs.

Contact with Blood

Dental instruments are sterilized to prevent the transmission of hepatitis and other blood-borne pathogens.

It is possible to contract hepatitis C virus ("hep C") and hepatitis B from having contact with the body fluids and blood of an infected person. An infected mother may pass the infection to her baby during childbirth. Sex partners may contract the virus from each other. Dental instruments contaminated with infected blood may transmit hepatitis, but sterilization makes this highly unlikely. It is much less likely to contract hepatitis C and hepatitis B from a blood transfusion because the blood supply in the U.S. is screened. However, the risk of contracting these viruses from blood transfusion is not zero. It is estimated that there is about a 1 in 205,000 chance of contracting hepatitis B from a blood transfusion and a 1 in 2 million chance of contracting hepatitis C from a blood transfusion.

Body Art

Tattoos and body piercings are a risk factor for contracting hepatitis C virus and hepatitis B.

If you are considering getting a body piercing or tattoo, make sure you choose the shop wisely. Tattoos and body piercing are risk factors for contracting hepatitis C and hepatitis B infections. Ask the staff at the facility how they sterilize the equipment between clients. All tools should be heat-sterilized to kill blood-borne infections after every client. Observe the staff closely. Make sure they wear gloves while piercing or tattooing, and they should wash their hands thoroughly after every client. Staff should put on a new pair of gloves before attending to the next customer.

Nail and Hair Salons

Grooming tools like nail clippers can harbor viral hepatitis.

Any time you are exposed to the blood of another person, there is a risk of contracting hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections. The nail salon and hair salon both offer small potential sources of exposure through shared grooming items. Make sure the nail and hair salons you go to thoroughly sterilize and disinfect tools between clients. If you are still concerned, consider bringing your own razors, nail files, nail clippers, and other tools to the shop.

Sex Partners

Having sex with an infected person is a risk factor for hepatitis C virus infection and other sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).

Having a sex partner who has hepatitis C or hepatitis B virus is a major contributor to new infections. Hepatitis B and C viruses can reside in the vaginal fluid, blood, or semen of an infected person. Abstinence is the only surefire way to avoid contracting hepatitis from an infected person. There is a vaccine for hepatitis B. Use latex condoms and/or dental dams every time you have sex to help reduce the risk of being exposed to hepatitis C and hepatitis B viruses. These measures will also help protect you against HIV-infected partners.

Keep Personal Items Personal

Sharing personal items that contain infected blood may transmit hepatitis C infection.

Any tools or implements that may have a bit of blood on them from infected people are potential sources of hepatitis B or C transmission. Toothbrushes, nail clippers, razors, needles, and washcloths may all contain trace amounts of blood that can transmit infection. Keep personal items such as these to yourself and never use personal items that belong to others.

Organ Transplantation

People who received donated blood or organs prior to 1992 are at increased risk of hepatitis C infection.

All donated blood, organs, and tissues in the U.S. are screened for hepatitis C virus, HIV, and other pathogens prior to being given to recipients. Screening greatly decreases the risk of recipients becoming infected with hepatitis C virus and other blood-to-blood transmitted infections, but it does not eliminate the risk entirely. People who received donated blood or organs prior to 1992 were at increased risk of contracting hepatitis C infection from the donated tissue because that was when widespread screening for the virus was instituted.

Kidney Disease Link

Dialysis patients are more likely to be HCV-positive than those without kidney disease.

People who have kidney disease and undergo dialysis, especially long-term, are more likely to be infected with hepatitis B and hepatitis C. One study found that having chronic hepatitis C infection was associated with a 43 percent increase in the incidence of chronic kidney disease. The chronic HCV-infected person who also has chronic kidney disease is also more likely to develop end-stage renal disease and have higher all-cause mortality when undergoing dialysis.

Baby Boomers

Three-quarters of people living with chronic hepatitis C are baby boomers.

People born in the baby boom generation between 1945 to 1965 are 5 times more likely to have HCV infection than other adults. Although anyone of any age can contract hepatitis C, approximately 75 percent of people who have it were born during the baby boom. Transmission of the virus was highest from the 1960s to the 1980s. Many people may have become infected from medical procedures before precautions to guard against transmission of blood-borne pathogens were in place. Others may have been infected by receiving blood transfusions before adequate screening was in place. Intravenous drug use and needle sharing is another potential source of infection. The majority of people who have hepatitis C do not know that they have it. People often live with chronic infection for many years without exhibiting symptoms. This is dangerous because HCV-related risks include increased incidence of liver disease, liver cancer, and the need for liver transplantation. The earlier that HCV infection is diagnosed and treated, the better. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all baby boomers be screened at least once for HCV.

At-Risk Professionals

Health-care professionals who get needlesticks should be tested for hep C.

Health-care professionals like surgeons, dentists, infusion nurses, and other medical workers who may suffer needlestick injuries and come into contact with blood are at increased risk of contracting hepatitis C virus. Any health-care professional who suffers a needlestick or other exposure to a patient's blood should be tested for hepatitis C and watch for symptoms of acute hepatitis C infection like fatigue, fever, clay-colored stool, abdominal pain, joint pain, jaundice, nausea, vomiting, dark urine, and loss of appetite. Approximately 75 to 85 percent of people who are infected with HCV go on to develop chronic hepatitis C infection. Several blood tests are available to detect HCV infection. Some of these tests check for antibodies (anti-HCV). Some blood tests check for the presence of HCV genetic material. Some blood tests check for the amount of virus in the body (viral load).

HIV Infection

Hepatitis C is present in at least one-quarter of people who are infected with HIV.

HIV and hepatitis C virus are both blood-borne infections that are spread by blood-to-blood contact. Approximately 25 percent of people who are infected with HIV are co-infected with hepatitis C. HIV and hepatitis C co-infection is present in approximately 50 to 90 percent of HIV-infected injection drug users. People who have both infections are more likely to progress to liver damage compared to those who just have HCV infection. Infection with HCV affects the way that HIV is managed, too. It is recommended that everyone who has HIV should be screened for HCV infection.

What Is Viral Hepatitis? How You Catch Hepatitis A, B, and C

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