Hepatitis: What it Is and How it Affects Your Body

Most commonly, people recognize hepatitis from its viral cause, such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. While the causes of each are somewhat different, the result of inflammation and damage to the liver is the same. Some forms of hepatitis are preventable with vaccinations but each can be treated either through symptom support or cured with oral medications.

Common Types of Hepatitis

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus that is spread when an individual ingests any amount of infected fecal matter due to contact with objects, food, or drinks. International travelers, men who have sex with men, individuals who use injectable drugs, people with occupational exposure risks, and people experiencing homelessness are at increased risk for hepatitis A. Those infected with hepatitis A may be sick for a few weeks up to a few months, but will most likely recover with no lasting liver damage. Individuals rarely die from hepatitis A infection, and treatment is only in the form of supportive care for symptoms. Routine testing for hepatitis A is not generally recommended, and a preventable vaccine is available.

Hepatitis B

Caused by a virus, hepatitis B is found to be most highly concentrated in the blood. However, it can be present in other bodily fluids such as semen, vaginal secretions, and saliva. Hepatitis B can be spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner, and risk factors include multiple partners, sex between men, a history of other STDs, and intravenous drug use. Babies can also get this infection if the pregnant person is positive for hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B can result in two different types of infection; acute infection where it lasts for only a few weeks, or chronic hepatitis B which is a serious, lifelong illness.

Acute infection may not result in any symptoms, but for those that do, symptoms of acute hepatitis B include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice

Most individuals with chronic hepatitis won’t have any symptoms, and may not develop any for decades. Once symptoms do develop, they will be similar to those with an acute infection but may indicate advanced liver disease. Chronic hepatitis B can develop into other serious health issues like liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer, and even death.


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Hepatitis C

Because hepatitis C is a bloodborne infection, this virus is not transmitted easily through sex, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible, especially in those who may also be infected with HIV. More likely, hepatitis C is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person, whether through shared drug-injection equipment, birth, working as a healthcare professional, sexual contact, unregulated tattoos or piercings, sharing personal items that have been exposed to blood, and blood transfusions and organ transplants.

Hepatitis C can result in two different types of infection; acute infection that lasts for only a few weeks, or chronic hepatitis C which is a serious, lifelong illness.

Acute infection often takes place within 6 months after exposure and can lead to chronic infection. While the infection may not result in any symptoms, acute hepatitis C could cause:

  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • No desire to eat
  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Fever
  • Dark urine
  • Light-colored stool
  • Joint pain
  • Feeling tired

Individuals with chronic hepatitis C may have no symptoms, or experience general ones such as chronic fatigue and depression. Many of those with chronic illnesses develop chronic liver disease.


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Hepatitis D

Also known as “delta hepatitis,” hepatitis D is also caused by a virus. However, hepatitis D only occurs in those who are also infected with hepatitis B. Hep D is spread through blood or bodily fluids of an infected individual, and can lead to severe symptoms and serious illness that causes life-long liver damage and even death. People with hepatitis D either were infected at the same time as hepatitis B, or later after already being infected with hep B. There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis D, but by vaccinating against hepatitis B, you are protected against contracting hepatitis D.

Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E is caused by a virus, but there are four genotypes, two of which are found in humans (genotypes 1 and 2). The other two (genotypes 3 and 4) are general only in animals such as pigs, wild boars, and deer but could potentially infect humans if exposed. The hepatitis E virus spreads primarily through drinking water that has been contaminated by the stools of infected individuals, entering the body through the intestines. Illness from hepatitis E generally resolves within 2-6 weeks, but acute liver failure may develop which can be fatal. Prevention relies solely on maintaining proper hygiene and avoiding consuming water or ice with unknown purity.

Source: WHO – Hepatitis E

Specific Testing Information for Hepatitis

Testing for hepatitis generally involves a blood test for diagnosis. These tests will not only look for the presence of viral infection but can also be used to evaluate liver function, as well. Using a small amount of blood drawn from a vein, lab results can confirm the type of hepatitis, severity of infection, type of infection, and whether or not the person is currently contagious.

Source: NYU Langone Health – Diagnosing and Managing Hepatitis

The results of a hepatitis test will depend on how the test was performed and the testing facility’s practices. When to expect your results should be discussed with the facility or company you receive testing through.

The treatment for hepatitis will depend on the type you have and the severity of the infection. Some may simply require management of symptoms until the virus has run its course, while others can be treated and cured using oral therapy medications.

Testing for hepatitis will vary based on needs and risk factors. A wide range of individuals should receive testing at least once for hepatitis B and C, while routine testing for hepatitis A is not recommended. In general, hepatitis B and C are the most common viral liver infections, so testing for those should be a priority.

Source: CDC – What is Viral Hepatitis?

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