The Different Types of Viral Hepatitis

Understanding the different types of viral hepatitis and the effects on the liver can help the patient be proactive in prevention, taking care of themselves, and treatment.

The word hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Viral hepatitis is caused by a specific virus that attacks the liver. Hepatitis A, B, and C are the most common forms of viral hepatitis seen in the United States.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus that attacks the liver. The hepatitis A virus is primarily spread when food or water is contaminated.

This is generally associated with unsanitary water, inadequate sanitation, and poor personal hygiene (like when someone doesn’t wash their hands after they’ve gone to the bathroom and then handles food). Frequent hand washing is recommended to prevent the spread of the virus.

Hepatitis A generally resolves without long-term liver damage. Treatment is rarely needed, as most patients recover from the infection. There is a vaccine to prevent hepatitis A.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus, which can cause a chronic infection leading to high risk of cirrhosis (severe scarring), liver cancer, and liver failure.

The hepatitis B virus is transmitted through blood and other body fluids of an infected person to someone who is not infected.

HHS states, “For some people, HBV is an acute, or short-term, illness; 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.”1

There are a variety of antiviral medications to help fight the virus and slow down liver damage. Hepatitis B is not curable but can be treated and prevented with the hepatitis B vaccine and safety precautions for transmission.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus that attacks the liver. The virus is transmitted when infected blood enters an uninfected person.

Transmission can happen in a variety of ways from inadequate sterilization of medical equipment, unscreened blood, and blood products, unsafe injection practices, sharing personal hygiene items, etc.

Hepatitis C causes liver damage with a high risk of cirrhosis (severe scarring), liver cancer, and liver failure.

There are a variety of highly effective treatment medications for hepatitis C. Hepatitis C treatment offers a high cure rate of over 90% in most cases. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Hepatitis D

Hepatitis D is caused by the hepatitis D virus through contact with infected blood. Hepatitis D only occurs if someone is infected with hepatitis B. The hepatitis B vaccine, therefore, can prevent being infected with hepatitis D.

Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E is caused by the hepatitis E virus. The virus is transmitted through contaminated drinking water and generally resolves within 4 to 6 weeks. Occasionally, this can lead to a more serious form of hepatitis resulting in liver failure. Treatment of rest and hydration is required, along with avoiding alcohol. There is limited treatment for hep C. Antiviral medications such as ribavirin can be used if the virus does not resolve on its own. There is a vaccine for hepatitis E in China, but not currently available in other countries.2

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