Preventing hepatitis B or C
Hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections cause irritation (inflammation) and swelling of the liver. You should take steps to prevent catching or spreading these viruses since these infections can cause chronic liver disease.
Hepatitis C - Animation
Hepatitis C is a viral disease that leads to swelling or inflammation of the liver. If you've been diagnosed with hepatitis C, you may be worrying about your health. Let's answer some questions you may have about hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is irritation and swelling of the liver from infection with the hepatitis C virus. You can get hepatitis C if you have been on long-term kidney dialysis, or have regular contact with blood at work such as a health care worker, have unprotected sex with someone infected with hepatitis C, use injected street drugs or share a needle with someone who has hepatitis C, received a tattoo or acupuncture from contaminated instruments, although the risk is low with licensed, commercial tattoo shops, received blood or organs from a donor who has hepatitis C, share a toothbrush or razors with someone who has the disease, or were born to a mother infected with hepatitis C. Most people newly infected with hepatitis C virus will not have symptoms. About 10 percent will have jaundice or yellow skin that gets better. The bad news is that most people infected with hepatitis C will have it for a long time, usually with no symptoms. Typically, long-term hepatitis C infection can lead to liver scarring, a condition called cirrhosis, or even liver cancer. If your doctor suspects hepatitis C, you will need blood tests to confirm the diagnosis. If you've had the disease for a long time, you doctor can use a procedure called a liver biopsy to see how much damage has been done to your liver. You will need to take medicine to try to remove the virus from your blood and reduce your risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer. The most common medications are a combination of pegylated interferon alfa and ribavirin, an antiviral medication. Pegylated interferon alfa is an injection you will probably receive weekly. You can take ribavirin as a capsule twice a day. Treatment may last up to 48 weeks. Most people with hepatitis C have the chronic form. But some people may get better with treatment, although they may need continued testing. Even if treatment doesn't remove the virus from your blood, it can reduce your chance of severe liver disease.
Hepatitis B - Animation
If you've been diagnosed with hepatitis B, you may worry about your health and about spreading the disease to others. Let's talk about hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is irritation and swelling of the liver from infection with the hepatitis B virus. Infection can spread through contact with the blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and other body fluids of someone who already has the disease. Hepatitis B can also be passed to an infant during childbirth if the mother is infected. Most of the damage from the virus happens because of how the body responds to the infection. When the body's immune system detects the infection, it sends out special cells to fight it off. These disease-fighting cells, in turn, can cause liver inflammation. After you first become infected with the hepatitis B virus, you may have no symptoms at all. Or you may feel sick for a period of days or weeks, with some people becoming very ill. If you're body is able to fight off the infection, symptoms should go away within a few weeks to months. Early symptoms may include loss of appetite, weakness, a low-grade fever, muscle and joint aches, nausea, vomiting, or maybe yellow skin. Sometimes, your body can't get rid of the infection. If so, you have chronic (or long-term) hepatitis B. You may have few - or even no - symptoms at all. You may not even look sick. This is a problem, because people with chronic hepatitis B often do not know they're sick, and they can spread the virus to other people. If your doctor thinks you have hepatitis B, you will need blood tests to confirm diagnosis. If your disease is acute (or short-term), you may not need treatment, other than occasional blood tests to check the health of your liver and other body functions. Your doctor will tell you to get plenty of bed rest, to drink plenty of fluids, and to eat healthy foods. Some people may have chronic hepatitis and need antiviral medications or another medicine, called peginterferon. These medicines can remove hepatitis B from your blood and reduce your risk of cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and reduce your risk of liver cancer. If you have severe chronic hepatitis B, you may eventually need a liver transplant. If you have acute hepatitis B, you will probably get better. If your infection is chronic, however, you should avoid alcohol and check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medicines or herbal supplements. And you will need ongoing blood tests to monitor the health of your liver.
All children should get the hepatitis B vaccine.
- Babies should get a first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine at birth. They should have all three shots in the series by age 6 to 18 months.
- Infants born to mothers who have acute hepatitis B or have had the infection in the past should get a special hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of birth.
- Children younger than age 19 who have not had the vaccine should get "catch-up" doses.
Adults at high risk for hepatitis B should also be vaccinated, including:
- Health care workers and those who live with someone who has hepatitis B
- People with end-stage kidney disease, chronic liver disease, or HIV infection
- People with multiple sex partners and men who have sex with other men
- People who use recreational, injectable drugs
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Hepatitis B and C viruses are spread through contact with blood or bodily fluids of a person with the virus. The viruses are not spread through casual contact, such as holding hands, sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses, breastfeeding, kissing, hugging, coughing, or sneezing.
To avoid coming in contact with blood or bodily fluids of others:
- Avoid sharing personal items, such as razors or toothbrushes
- Do not share drug needles or other drug equipment (such as straws for snorting drugs)
- Clean blood spills with a solution containing 1 part household bleach to 9 parts water
- Be careful when getting tattoos and body piercings
- Practice safe sex (especially for prevention of hepatitis B)
Safe sex means taking steps before and during sex that can prevent you from getting an infection, or from giving an infection to your partner.
Other steps you can take
Screening of all donated blood has reduced the chance of getting hepatitis B and C from a blood transfusion. People newly diagnosed with hepatitis B infection should be reported to state health care workers to track the population's exposure to the virus.
The hepatitis B vaccine, or a hepatitis immune globulin (HBIG) shot, may help prevent infection if it is received within 24 hours of contact with the virus.
Michael M. Phillips, MD, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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