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Hepatitis is a virus that comes in several types. While all hepatitis viruses cause liver disease, they vary dramatically in terms of severity, transmission, and prevention methods, which means that it’s impossible to talk about all of them interchangeably.
In this guide, we’ll explain all about hepatitis, including the different types and how to distinguish between acute and chronic hepatitis. Acute hepatitis lasts for less than six months, and patients eventually regain full liver function, while chronic hepatitis lasts for much longer and results in permanent liver damage.
According to the World Health Organization, hepatitis B and C are the most common causes of liver disease and viral-hepatitis deaths in the world, and the same report estimates that over 350 million people live with either hepatitis B or C globally.
In medicine, hepatitis refers to an inflammation of the liver, either from heavy drinking, taking certain medications, or from a viral disease. For our “All About Hepatitis” guide, we’ll only discuss three types of viral hepatitis: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. These viruses all cause liver inflammation but spread in different ways.
The most common types of hepatitis in the United States are A, B, and C. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that in 2020 there were:
Hepatitis A spreads through oral-fecal transmission routes, which typically means ingesting contaminated food or water or coming into close contact with an infected person.
Hepatitis A is one of the milder forms of the condition. Most people are sick for a few months and recover with no lasting liver damage. However, some people, especially those with already weakened liver function, can die from hepatitis A.
The most effective way of preventing the spread of hepatitis A is through vaccination. The CDC guidelines recommend vaccinating children aged 12 to 23 months and high-risk adults.
The hepatitis B virus (HBV) spreads through body fluids like blood and semen. Common transmission routes include sex with an infected person, shared needles with an infected person, pregnant women to their newborns, or direct contact with an infected person’s blood.
Hepatitis B can cause acute or chronic hepatitis. Acute hepatitis lasts for a few weeks after exposure to HBV. For most people, this infection is asymptomatic or mild, but others may require hospitalization. Chronic hepatitis B results in liver damage, and 15% of people who have a chronic infection die of liver cancer or liver damage.
An effective hepatitis B vaccine is available, and the CDC recommends vaccinating everyone, including all adults, even those who do not have any risk factors for hepatitis B. The CDC also recommends that everyone over the age of 18 should get tested at least once in their lifetime. People with risk factors should also undergo periodic same-day STD testing to ensure they do not carry the virus.
Hepatitis C spreads through blood, commonly through unsanitary body piercing or contaminated tattooing equipment, sharing needles, and having sex with an infected person.
Unlike hepatitis B, hepatitis C does not have an effective vaccine. However, hepatitis C infections are treatable with medication that works on more than 95% of people with few side effects. Since almost half of hepatitis C infections become chronic infections, routine screening with a 10-panel STD test for at-risk groups is essential to starting early treatment and preventing the spread of the virus.
Your symptoms when contracting hepatitis depend on the virus type and whether your disease progresses from an acute infection to a chronic condition.
Almost all hepatitis A infections are relatively mild and treated with supportive care. People who get hepatitis A recover with little to no permanent liver damage.
Hepatitis B infections are either acute or chronic. Acute hepatitis B is a short-term illness that affects people very differently. Some people experience mild symptoms that they can treat with rest and nutrition, while others develop a serious illness that requires intensive care. Chronic infections never go away on their own and eventually will develop into liver cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease.
Acute hepatitis B symptoms include:
Chronic hepatitis B does not manifest in any obvious symptoms, and most people remain asymptomatic until they develop liver cirrhosis or liver cancer. Approximately 25% of people who contract hepatitis B during childhood and 15% of people who contract chronic HBV as adults will die prematurely from these conditions.
Hepatitis C infections also present as either acute or chronic. Acute infections are typically asymptomatic, and approximately 30% of people infected with HCV will clear up the infection without any treatment. The rest of the people with hepatitis C will develop chronic hepatitis C, which can lead to serious, life-long conditions such as liver cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure.
Symptoms of acute hepatitis C infection include:
Most people who suffer from chronic hepatitis C do not experience any symptoms or present with general symptoms like fatigue and depression. Diagnostic tests that measure liver enzymes and function, as well as tests for the virus, such as Rapid STD Testing’s hepatitis testing kits, are necessary to diagnose chronic hepatitis C.
The risk factors involved in contracting hepatitis depend largely on the virus type.
People with an increased risk of contracting hepatitis A include:
Risk factors for hepatitis B include:
Risk factors for hepatitis C include:
Hepatitis A does not have any long-term health consequences, as most people can fight off the infection themselves with some supportive care.
A chronic hepatitis B or C infection can have significantly more dangerous long-term consequences if you don’t seek treatment. However, both types of the disease do have treatment options, which is why it’s vital to perform routine testing using a rapid STD test if you have hepatitis symptoms or are at risk of contracting one of the viruses.
The best way to avoid getting hepatitis B or C is to limit your contact with bodily fluids whenever possible. Prevention tactics for hepatitis B and C include:
Effective vaccines are available for both hepatitis A and B, and the CDC recommends vaccinating all children as well as adults who have risk factors for contracting the disease.
Unfortunately, hepatitis C does not have a vaccine available, making regular screening and testing essential for at-risk individuals.
Most hepatitis A and acute hepatitis B infections do not need special treatments and respond well to supportive care. Certain at-risk individuals, such as those with chronic liver disease and people with HIV, may need hospitalization and additional care in case their condition worsens.
Doctors treat chronic hepatitis B with antiretroviral drugs to halt liver damage. Patients need regular monitoring because while antiretrovirals help limit the damage caused by HBV, they do not completely cure the disease.
While there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, it responds extremely well to treatment. Approximately 95% of patients who complete the course of medicine recover fully and experience few side effects. Treatment takes between 8 and 12 weeks, and many experts recommend starting treatment as soon as possible.
Acute hepatitis infections can range from extremely mild cases to conditions that require hospitalization but generally don’t result in extensive liver damage. Without treatment, however, these acute infections can turn into chronic conditions that may eventually become fatal.
Now that you know all about hepatitis, you can take steps to protect yourself with routine testing.
Rapid STD Testing offers kits that screen for hepatitis A, B, and C, which combined with safe practices, can dramatically lower your chances of contracting these diseases. If you have the symptoms of acute hepatitis or are at risk of developing hepatitis, order an at-home Rapid STD Testing kit or visit a clinic for a hepatitis test today.