What Is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is the term for several diseases that cause the liver to be inflamed (swollen). The most common types of hepatitis are A, B, and C. These types of hepatitis are caused by 3 different viruses.

Hepatitis A is called “infectious hepatitis.” You can get it by eating food that has not been washed or handled properly or by drinking water that has not been filtered. In both cases, the food or water has been exposed to feces (stool) from someone that has the hepatitis A virus. Once the virus is cleared from your bloodstream, you no longer have this disease.

Hepatitis B and C are caused by viruses that are in blood and body fluids. You can get one of these types of hepatitis by being exposed to blood or body fluids from a person who has the hepatitis B or C virus. These types of hepatitis start with an acute (short-term) infection that can become chronic (long-term). You have chronic hepatitis if your body does not clear all of the virus from your bloodstream within 6 months. If you have hepatitis B or C and are not diagnosed and treated, then you can have long-term liver damage or die. Many people who have been exposed do not know they have hepatitis, because they had few or no symptoms of the acute infection. It may take 10 or 20 years for the damage to your liver to be recognized.

Are there vaccines for hepatitis?

There are vaccines to protect people from getting hepatitis A and hepatitis B. There is no vaccine to protect people from hepatitis C.

Can hepatitis C be treated?

In about 1 in 4 persons, the acute hepatitis C infection will clear without treatment. Treatment of acute infection and chronic infection is similar, but the best time to start treatment is not clear. Chronic hepatitis C is curable. You take medication for between 12 and 52 weeks, depending on the subtype of hepatitis C you have and how advanced the disease is. Pregnant women are not able to take some of the medications, so women at risk may want to be tested and treated before becoming pregnant.

Am I at risk for hepatitis C?

Women most at risk for hepatitis C are those born from 1945 through 1965 because the rates of hepatitis C have been shown to be highest in this age group generally. Other risk factors include current or previous use of injected drugs, a needlestick injury at work, having HIV or hemophilia, and being born to a mother with hepatitis C. Amateur tattooing or piercing may also increase your risk if the needles used have blood from a person with hepatitis C on them. If someone close to you has hepatitis C, having sex with them or using their personal items that might have blood on them (such as a razor or toothbrush) are other ways to get the infection. Just being in the house with someone living with hepatitis C cannot cause infection. Sharing plates, hugging, or being close to one another cannot give you hepatitis C. Many people who have hepatitis C do not know they have it. Even though they do not show signs of hepatitis C, they can still give it to others. Your health care provider can help you decide whether you should be tested. Sometimes, even if there is no obvious risk, other findings may suggest the need to test, such as elevated liver lab test results.

If I have hepatitis C and I am pregnant, can I give hepatitis C to my baby?

About 6 out of 100 babies whose mothers have hepatitis C will be born with the infection. The infection is passed on at the time of birth, and there is no medication to prevent transmission. If the mother has active virus in her blood (viremia), the risk of giving the baby hepatitis C is higher. If she also has HIV, the risk of passing on the virus is much higher. If you have hepatitis C, your baby should be tested for it when he or she is 12 to 18 months old. Babies who appear sick or whose mothers also have HIV can have an earlier test that is then confirmed when the baby is 18 months old.

If the danger is during birth, should I have a cesarean birth?

Most health care providers believe that a vaginal birth is the safest for both you and your baby. Having a cesarean has not been shown to decrease the risk of your baby getting hepatitis C. If you have hepatitis C, talk with your health care provider and consult a specialist in infectious disease about the birth plan that is best for you.

If I have H, can I breastfeed?

Yes. Studies have not found any link between breastfeeding and passing hepatitis C to a baby. In fact, breastfeeding helps babies build their own immune systems, so you will help protect your baby against many diseases by breastfeeding. If you have hepatitis C and your nipples are cracked or bleeding, you may not want to breastfeed your baby until your nipples have healed.

Who should be tested for hepatitis C?

Testing is recommended if you:

  • Were born from 1945 through 1965
  • Currently use injected drugs
  • Have ever injected drugs in the past
  • Received clotting factor before 1987 or a blood product or organ transplant before 1992
  • Have had long-term hemodialysis
  • Have HIV
  • Are a health care, emergency medical, or public safety worker who has had a known exposure to hepatitis C-positive blood through a needlestick, sharp, or mucus membrane
  • Are a child born to a mother with hepatitis C

Need for testing is uncertain, and you should talk to your health care provider if you:

  • Have received transplanted tissue
  • Use cocaine or other noninjectable illegal drugs
  • Have tattoos or body piercing
  • Have had multiple sexual partners
  • Have had sexually transmitted infections
  • Have a long-term sexual partner who has hepatitis C

Routine testing is not recommended if you:

  • Are a health care, emergency medical, or public safety worker
  • Are pregnant
  • Have household (nonsexual) contact with a person with hepatitis C

For More Information

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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