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What's the Problem?

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Viral hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by infection with any of the hepatitis viruses. There are at least 5 types of viral hepatitis. The most common types seen in the United States are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a disease caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). HAV is found in the stool of persons with hepatitis A. HAV is usually spread from person to person by putting something in the mouth that had been contaminated with the stool of a person with hepatitis A. For this reason, the virus is more easily spread in areas where there are poor sanitary conditions or where personal hygiene is not observed.

Persons with hepatitis A can spread the virus to others who live in the same household or with whom they have sex contact. Casual contact as in the usual office, factory, or school setting does not spread the virus. In addition to getting hepatitis A directly from infected people, you can get hepatitis A by swallowing contaminated water or ice, eating raw shellfish harvested from sewage-contaminated water, or by eating fruits, vegetables, or other food that may have become contaminated during handling. For more information, see the Hepatitis A tip sheet.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a disease caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). You can get hepatitis B by direct contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person; for example, you can become infected by having sex or sharing needles with an infected person. A baby can get hepatitis B from an infected mother during childbirth. HBV is not spread through food or water or by casual contact. Some people who get hepatitis B never get rid of the virus. They carry the virus and can infect others for the rest of their lives. In the United States, about one million people carry HBV. For more information, see the Hepatitis B tip sheet.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV is spread primarily by direct contact with human blood. Of every 100 persons infected with HCV, about 75 to 85 may develop long-term infection; 70 may develop chronic liver disease; 15 may develop cirrhosis over a period of 20 to 30 years; and less than 3% may die from the consequences of long term infection (liver cancer or cirrhosis). Hepatitis C is a leading indication for liver transplants. For more information, see the Hepatitis C tip sheet.

Who's at Risk?

Any person might develop viral hepatitis. However, certain behaviors can increase a person's risk for developing viral hepatitis.

Can It Be Prevented?

Safe and effective vaccines exist for hepatitis A and B. Although there is no vaccine available for hepatitis C, there are ways to reduce the risk of contracting the disease.

The Bottom Line

  • HAV is most commonly transmitted by person-to-person contact, such as living in the same house with a person who has hepatitis A.
  • HBV is most commonly transmitted by sexual contact, both homosexual and heterosexual.
  • HCV is most often transmitted through sharing injection drug use (IDU) equipment.
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  • Page last reviewed: February 11, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 11, 2011 The U.S. Government's Official Web PortalDepartment of Health and Human Services
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