Hepatitis is the name for a group of liver diseases caused by contagious viruses. There are six types of viruses that cause hepatitis, but three of them (types A, B and C) account for 90% of Canadian cases. Hepatitis can be mild or severe, and people can recover completely or become carriers of the disease for life.
Hepatitis A is a virus that you get from consuming food or water that has been contaminated by animal or human waste. Hepatitis A is spread by unsafe food handling or by people not washing their hands before making food.
If you have hepatitis A, you might feel stomach pain, a loss of appetite, uneasiness, or have dark urine or get jaundice (a yellow colour in your skin and eyes). Most people with hepatitis A get better naturally, but some people can have a relapse where the virus comes back. Once you recover completely from hepatitis A, you become immune to getting the disease again.
Hepatitis B is passed on through sexual contact, or blood or other body fluids. Many people with hepatitis B recover and develop lifelong immunity, as with hepatitis A. However, in other people with hepatitis B, especially in people who were born to mothers with the disease, the condition can become chronic.
Hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious than the HIV virus. Hepatitis B can also be prevented by safer sex practices, safe medical practices and not sharing needles, personal hygiene items or drug paraphernalia.
You can have hepatitis B and not know it, as often there are no symptoms. But the 15% of people who develop chronic hepatitis B can end up with serious liver trouble like cirrhosis or cancer, so stopping the spread of the disease is important.
Hepatitis C is chronic for 90% of the people who get it. Most people don’t get rid of the virus, but have to deal with it for life. Chronic infection can lead to profound fatigue, liver cancer or cirrhosis. It’s passed on by exposure to infected blood.
About half of hepatitis C is seen in people who inject drugs, but you can also get it from tattooing or body piercing. In Canada, 70% of people with hepatitis C don’t even know they have it, and there is currently no vaccine for it. Hepatitis C can have no symptoms at all, or it can cause fatigue, stomach pain, uneasiness or jaundice, in addition to more serious problems down the line.
Protect yourself from hepatitis
You can prevent hepatitis A and B by practicing good hygiene, avoiding sharing needles or other drug-use equipment, practicing safer sex and using gloves if your job requires you to be exposed to blood or blood products.