By Meron Tesfai

May is National Hepatitis Awareness Month. Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Sometimes this inflammation is cause by infections, like viruses. The most common viruses that cause hepatitis are called hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.

An estimated 4.4 million Americans are living with hepatitis caused by these viruses.  There are safe and effective vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there is no vaccine for C yet. Hepatitis B and C can cause long term infection and permanent liver damage.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis?

Some people who have hepatitis A, B, or C will have no symptoms. Others will have fever, stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting; yellow color of the eyes and skin; fatigue; dark brown urine; and light colored stools. Blood tests are needed to see if you are infected with one of these germs.

What are the differences between hepatitis A, B and C?

Hepatitis A:  Someone gets hepatitis A by eating or drinking foods or water contaminated with the virus or by having direct contact with the stool of an infected person.  Hand washing, especially before preparing foods or eating and after using the toilet, are important in preventing the spread of hepatitis A.  Certain foods like shellfish can also spread the virus if they have been harvested in waters contaminated with sewage containing hepatitis A virus. This virus does not result in long term infection, but a person with hepatitis A can feel sick for 6 to 10 weeks. 

Hepatitis B:  Someone gets hepatitis B through contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluid.  Unprotected sexual contact; use of dirty injection equipment such as needles, syringes, and related supplies such as cookers; and exposure during birth from an infected mother can all transmit hepatitis B. Although most people recover from hepatitis B, it can cause lifelong infection. A safe and effective vaccine to prevent hepatitis B has been available for many years.

Hepatitis C: This infection is usually  spread by direct contact to infected blood. Sharing razors or injecting drug equipment (needles, syringes, cotton, cookers) all put people at risk.  Hepatitis C can also  spread through sexual contact, but this is less common. In most people, hepatitis C causes long term infection. Several medicines to treat hepatitis C are now available. People who have ever injected drugs not prescribed by a health care provider should contact their doctor to get tested for hepatitis C.

For more information about hepatitis, talk to your doctor. You can also contact the Boston Public Health Commission at 617-534-5611 or visit our website here.

Meron is a project manager in the Infectious Disease Bureau’s Education and Outreach Office.