Let’s begin with what hepatitis is: It is an inflammation of the liver that is most often caused by a virus.
In the United States, 3 types of hepatitis are most common, hepatitis A, B, and C. Each one can produce similar symptoms, but each one is also different in how long it can last and how serious to your health and well-being it can be.
Hepatitis A is a short-term illness, and most people recover within days or weeks with no lasting health effects. We now have a vaccine to prevent hepatitis A, and new cases have decreased to fewer than 5,000 in the United States annually. However, isolated outbreaks of hepatitis A still occur, in part because many adults have neverreceived the vaccine. Children should receive the vaccination at 1 year of age, and adults should receive it if they might be at risk for getting hepatitis A. Adults who are at risk include anyone who uses illicit drugs, whether they injected the drugs or not, and those who travel to certain countries.
Hepatitis B can range from a mild illness of only a few weeks to a serious life-long chronic illness that can lead to liver cancer. Almost 2 million people are living with hepatitis B in the United States, and 2 in 3 people do not know they are infected. The virus can be spread from an infected mother to her baby during birth, through sexual contact, or through contact with blood, such as sharing injection drug equipment. The hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for infants at birth and adults who might be at risk, including travelers to certain countries.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis C virus. Most people who become infected will go on to have a chronic infection that causes serious liver problems, including liver cancer. This virus is usually spread when blood from an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person. Around 3 million people are living with hepatitis C in the United States, but over half do not know they have it! Although we do not have a vaccine for hepatitis C, new medications can cure hepatitis C.
Learning your hepatitis ABCs is important, but equally important is knowing if you are at risk — and that part is easy! I invite you to take the free, online Hepatitis Risk Assessment. It only takes 5 minutes to complete, and afterward, you receive testing and vaccination recommendations specific to you. Save a copy of your risk assessment and share it with your healthcare provider.
For more information about hepatitis, visit https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/index.htm.
Hazel D. Dean, ScD, DrPH (hon), FACE is Deputy Director, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention