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Hepatitis (he-puh-TEYE-tuhs) means inflammation (swelling) of the liver. Hepatitis can be caused by:
Hepatitis is most often caused by one of several viruses, which is why it is often called viral hepatitis. The most common types of viral hepatitis in the United States are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
This fact sheet focuses on viral hepatitis. You can learn more about other kinds of hepatitis from the National Library of Medicine.
Some people with viral hepatitis have no signs of the infection. Symptoms, if they do appear, can include:
You can get hepatitis A by eating food or drinking water contaminated with feces (stool) from a person infected with the virus or by anal-oral contact. Some ways you can get this type of hepatitis include:
You can get hepatitis B if you come into contact with an infected person's:
The virus can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth.
Hepatitis C is also spread through contact with the blood of an infected person. This usually happens when people use contaminated needles to inject drugs.
This depends on your risk factors. Ask your doctor about testing if:
You can live with hepatitis C for a long time without knowing it, so it is important to discuss your risk with your doctor.
If you think you might have viral hepatitis, see your doctor. To diagnose your illness, your doctor will:
Hepatitis infections are diagnosed with blood tests that look for parts of the virus or antibodies your body makes in response to the virus.
Acute viral hepatitis is a short-term, viral infection. It happens when you first get infected with the virus and can be mild or severe. In some cases, acute infection leads to chronic infection. Chronic viral hepatitis is a long-lasting infection that can last a lifetime.
Hepatitis A only causes acute infection. Hepatitis viruses B and C can cause both acute and chronic infections. Chronic hepatitis B and C are serious health problems. They can lead to:
Viral hepatitis will often get better on its own after several weeks to several months. However, when hepatitis becomes a chronic or long-term illness, the infection may need to be treated with specific medications called antivirals.
If you think you have any type of viral hepatitis, talk to your doctor about what treatments may be right for you.
In the United States in 2007, there were an estimated:
An estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million people have chronic hepatitis B and 3.2 million people have chronic hepatitis C in the United States. Between 75 and 85 percent of people who get infected with the hepatitis C virus develop a chronic infection.
Below are the best methods for preventing the hepatitis viruses most commonly seen in the United States.
Hepatitis A prevention
Hepatitis B prevention
Hepatitis C prevention
If you are a health care or public safety worker, always follow routine barrier precautions and safely handle needles and other sharp objects.
If you are pregnant, your doctor will test your blood for hepatitis B. If you are an infected mother, your baby should be given hepatitis B immune globulin (H-BIG) and the hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours after birth. If you have chronic hepatitis B, make sure your babies get all of their hepatitis B shots in the first six months of life.
The hepatitis A vaccine is given in two doses, six to 18 months apart. The vaccine is recommended for:
The hepatitis B vaccine is usually given in three doses over six months. The vaccine is recommended for:
Only one series of the hepatitis A vaccine (two shots) and hepatitis B vaccine (three shots) is needed during a person's lifetime. Most people don't need a booster dose of either vaccine. But, if you have had hemodialysis (hee-moh-dy-AL-uh-suhs) (medical procedure to purify blood) or have a weakened immune system, your doctor might recommend a booster dose of the hepatitis B vaccine.
It is safe to visit someone with viral hepatitis. You cannot get hepatitis through casual contact. It is fine to shake hands with, hug, or kiss someone who is infected with any type of viral hepatitis.
During birth, blood from the mother gets inside the baby's body. If the mother has hepatitis B virus in her blood, her baby will likely become infected. But this can be prevented by having the baby receive all of the shots in the hepatitis B vaccine series. A very small number of babies get infected before birth.
Make sure your baby gets the hepatitis B vaccine and hepatitis B immune globulin (H-BIG) within 12 hours of birth. Your baby will need two or three more shots of vaccine over the next one to 15 months to help prevent hepatitis B. The timing and total number of shots will depend on the type of vaccine and baby's age and weight.
The vaccine is very important. More than 90 percent of babies who are exposed to the virus, but don't get the vaccine, develop chronic hepatitis B. Your baby should be tested after the last vaccine shot to make sure he or she is protected from the disease.
Yes, you can breastfeed your baby if you have hepatitis B. Make sure your baby gets the hepatitis B vaccine and hepatitis B immune globulin (H-BIG). Take good care of your nipples to prevent cracking and bleeding. If your nipples are cracking or bleeding, avoid nursing your baby on that breast until the sores heal. Until they heal, you can pump your milk to keep up your milk supply. But, you should throw away this pumped milk. Do not feed it to your baby.
For more information about viral hepatitis, call womenshealth.gov at 800-994-9662 (TDD: 888-220-5446) or contact the following organizations:
Viral hepatitis fact sheet was reviewed by:
Dr. Cynthia Jorgensen, Ph.D.
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Content last updated: July 16, 2012.