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Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by a virus or damage to the liver, often from alcohol abuse.

Hepatitis can be either acute, lasting less than six months, or chronic, lasting longer than six months.

Several viruses are known to cause hepatitis.

As well as hepatitis caused by viruses there is a less common type called autoimmune hepatitis (AIH), which is due to the body's immune system defences wrongly attacking the liver.

Common forms of viral hepatitis include:

  • Hepatitis A: Hepatitis A is a virus that causes liver disease. This form of hepatitis never leads to a chronic infection and usually has no complications. The liver usually heals from hepatitis A within two months. However, occasional deaths from hepatitis A have occurred due to massive liver infection. Hepatitis A can be prevented by vaccination.
  • Hepatitis B: This form of hepatitis causes liver damage. Most people recover from the virus within six months, but sometimes the virus will cause a lifelong, chronic infection, resulting in serious liver damage. Once infected, a person can spread the virus even if he or she does not feel sick. Hepatitis B can be prevented by vaccination.
  • Hepatitis C: One of the most common causes of liver disease in the UK, hepatitis C is the number one reason for liver transplant. At least 80% of patients with hepatitis C develop a chronic liver infection. It often does not show any symptoms. No vaccine is yet available to prevent hepatitis C.

Viral hepatitis is often preventable. However, it is still considered a serious health risk because it can:

  • Destroy liver tissue
  • Spread from person to person
  • Weaken the body's immune system
  • Cause the liver to fail
  • Cause liver cancer (hepatitis B and C)
  • Cause death

How do you get hepatitis?

You are at a higher risk of developing hepatitis if you:

  • Share needles to take drugs
  • Practise unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex
  • Have many sexual partners
  • Drink a lot of alcohol
  • Have poor nutrition
  • Work in a hospital
  • Work in a nursing home
  • Receive long term kidney dialysis
  • Travel to areas with poor sanitation

How does someone get or spread hepatitis?

The answer to that question depends on the form of hepatitis.

Hepatitis A

A person can get hepatitis A from eating food or drinking water contaminated with the virus. Infected food is usually a problem in developing nations where poor sanitation is common.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B may be transmitted by:

  • Having sex with an infected person
  • Sharing contaminated needles
  • Being in direct contact with infected blood
  • Getting needle-stick injuries
  • Mother to child
  • Being in contact with an infected person's body fluids

Hepatitis C

A person can get hepatitis C from:

  • Sharing contaminated needles
  • Being in direct contact with infected blood
  • Suffering a needle-stick injury
  • Having sex with an infected person (less common)

Blood products are currently tested for hepatitis B and C in the UK, so it's unlikely that a person will get hepatitis from receiving blood products. However, blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992 in the UK may have not been tested for hepatitis C. If you received a blood transfusion before this date, you may want to get tested for hepatitis C.

WebMD Medical Reference

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