What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis B is a liver infection caused by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). Hepatitis B is transmitted when blood, semen, or another body fluid from a person infected with the Hepatitis B virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. This can happen through sexual contact; sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment; or from mother to baby at birth. For some people, hepatitis B is an acute, or short-term, illness but for others, it can become a long-term, chronic infection. Risk for chronic infection is related to age at infection: approximately 90% of infected infants become chronically infected, compared with 2%–6% of adults. Chronic Hepatitis B can lead to serious health issues, like cirrhosis or liver cancer. The best way to prevent Hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease that results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with the Hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, Hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic.” Acute Hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the Hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection. Chronic Hepatitis C is a serious disease than can result in long-term health problems, or even death.
There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C. The best way to prevent Hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviours that can spread the disease, especially injection drug use.
Identifying the symptoms
Most people who have an acute hepatitis B infection don't have symptoms. But if you do have symptoms, they may include:
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue).
- Mild fever.
- Loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
- Constant discomfort on the right side of the belly under the rib cage. (That's where the liver is located.)
- Tan-colored bowel movements (stools).
- Dark urine.
- Jaundice. This means that the skin and whites of the eyes look yellow. Jaundice is a major sign of liver damage. It usually appears after other symptoms have started to go away.
- Most people who have chronic infection have no symptoms.
- You may get infected without knowing it. You may not find out that you have an infection until you have a routine blood test or donate blood.
Finding out that a family member or someone you live with is infected also may cause you to be tested. Some people never know they have hepatitis B until a doctor finds that they have cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Most people who are infected with hepatitis C-even people who have been infected for a while-usually don't have symptoms.
If symptoms do develop, they may include:
- Joint pain.
- Belly pain.
- Itchy skin.
- Sore muscles.
- Dark urine.
- Jaundice, a condition in which the skin and the whites of the eyes look yellow.
A hepatitis C infection can cause damage to your liver (cirrhosis). If you develop cirrhosis, you may have:
- Redness on the palms of your hands caused by expanded small blood vessels.
- Clusters of blood vessels just below the skin that look like tiny red spiders and usually appear on your chest, shoulders, and face.
- Swelling of your belly, legs, and feet.
- Shrinking of the muscles.
- Bleeding from enlarged veins in your digestive tract, which is called variceal bleeding.
- Damage to your brain and nervous system, which is called encephalopathy. This damage can cause symptoms such as confusion and memory and concentration problems.
Many other health problems are linked with long-term cirrhosis. For more information, see the topic Cirrhosis. There also are many other conditions with similar symptoms, such as other liver infections and liver damage caused by drinking too much alcohol.
What Should I do if I test positive?
If you have tested positive for Hepatitis B, contact your health care provider immediately for treatment options.
Treatment of hepatitis B infection depends on how active the virus is and whether you are at risk for liver damage such as cirrhosis.
Treatment of short-term (acute) hepatitis B
Treatment depends on whether you:
- Have been recently infected with the virus.
- Have the symptoms of an acute infection.
- Have chronic infection.
If you have not gotten a hepatitis B vaccine and think you may have been exposed to the virus, you should get a shot of hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG) and the first of three shots of the hepatitis B vaccine.
It is important to receive this treatment within 7 days after a needle stick and within 2 weeks after sexual contact that may have exposed you to the virus. The sooner you receive treatment after exposure, the better the treatment works.
If you have the symptoms of acute infection, treatment with antiviral medicine usually isn't needed. Home treatment-such as eating well, drinking plenty of fluids, and avoiding alcohol and drugs- usually will relieve your symptoms.
In some cases, you may be given medicine to treat an acute infection. But using medicine usually isn't done unless a person is very sick.
Treatment of long-term (chronic) hepatitis B
Treatment depends on how active the virus is in your body and your chance of liver damage. The goal of treatment is to stop liver damage by keeping the virus from multiplying.
Antiviral medicine is used if the virus is active and you are at risk for liver damage. Medicine slows the ability of the virus to multiply.
Antiviral treatment isn't given to everyone who has chronic hepatitis B.
If you have tested positive for Hepatitis C, contact your health care provider immediately for treatment options.
You may or may not receive treatment for hepatitis C, depending on:
- How damaged your liver is.
- Other health conditions you have.
- How much hepatitis C virus you have in your body.
- What type (genotype) of hepatitis C you have.
The medicines used to treat hepatitis C can cause serious side effects, are expensive, and don't work for everyone.
Being diagnosed with hepatitis C can change your life. You may need help and support to cope with the illness.
Treatment of short-term (acute) hepatitis C
Most people who have acute hepatitis C don't get treated, because they don't know that they have the virus.
If a person knows that he or she may have been exposed to the virus-such as a health care worker who is stuck by a needle-acute hepatitis C can be found early. Most people who are known to have an acute hepatitis C infection get treated with medicine. In these cases, treatment may help prevent long-term (chronic) infection, although there is still some debate over when to begin treatment and how long to treat acute hepatitis C.
Treatment of long-term (chronic) hepatitis C
It is common for people to live with hepatitis C for years without knowing they have it, because they do not have symptoms. So most people diagnosed with hepatitis C find out that they already have long-term, chronic infection.
Treatment with a combination of antiviral medicines can fight the viral infection and prevent serious liver problems like cirrhosis or liver cancer. They are used for 12 weeks to a year and help your body get rid of the virus.
Whether or not you take medicines to treat hepatitis C, you will need to have routine blood tests to help your doctor know how well your liver is working.
Some people who at first decide not to have treatment later decide they want to have it. Your doctor can help you decide whether medicines are right for you.
What should I do if I test Negative?
A negative result indicates that at the time of collection, the presence of Hepatitis B and C were not detected in the sample provided. However, if the above symptoms arise or personal sexual activity or lifestyle changes, you should consider retesting.
For more information
For more information about Hepatitis B and C visit the CDC website:
To speak with a trained STD counsellor, contact the CDC National Hotline at:
Phone: 1 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) (24 hours)