Is Hepatitis Contagious?

Reviewed on 12/22/2020

What Is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are caused by viruses and are contagious, but each illness is spread differently.
Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are caused by viruses and are contagious, but each illness is spread differently.

Hepatitis is an infection and inflammation of the liver, an organ located on the upper right side of the abdomen.

There are several types of infectious hepatitis, caused by different viruses. They can cause similar symptoms but can affect the liver in different ways. The three main viral types are: 

  • Hepatitis A: This is a short-term infection and most patients recover without treatment within about 2 months. It can be prevented with a vaccine. 
  • Hepatitis B: This can cause acute or chronic infection. Most patients recover within 6 months but some patients develop a long-term infection that can result in liver damage. It can be prevented with a vaccine. 
  • Hepatitis C: This can cause acute or chronic infection that can lead to liver damage and severe scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver and an increased risk of liver cancer. There's no vaccine to prevent it. 

Other types of viral hepatitis include hepatitis D, which only develops in people who have hepatitis B, and hepatitis E, which is more common in parts of the developing world where there is poor sanitation. 

What Are Symptoms of Hepatitis?

Many people with hepatitis have no symptoms early on. When symptoms of hepatitis A, B, or C occur, they include: 

Additional symptoms of hepatitis A include: 

  • Diarrhea
  • Itchy skin
  • Liver damage that can lead to death (rare)

Most people with hepatitis C have no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include the above and:

Over time, hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections can lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Symptoms of cirrhosis include:

  • Swelling in the belly and legs, and fluid build-up in the lungs
  • Bruising or bleeding easily
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling of fullness
  • Confusion that can come on suddenly
  • Coma

Chronic hepatitis B and C also increase the risk of getting liver cancer.

SLIDESHOW

Hepatitis C, Hep B, Hep A: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment See Slideshow

What Causes Hepatitis?

Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus, hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus, and hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus.

Is Hepatitis Contagious?

Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are caused by viruses and are contagious, but each illness is spread differently. 

Hepatitis A is transmitted by: 

  • Eating food or drinking water with the virus in it
  • Touching something contaminated with the virus then touching food or one’s face

Hepatitis B is transmitted by: 

  • Having sex with an infected person
  • Sharing drug needles with an infected person
  • Using infected needles for tattooing, acupuncture, or piercings
  • Sharing toothbrushes, razors, or other personal items with an infected person
  • From pregnant mother to baby if the mother had hepatitis during pregnancy

Hepatitis C is transmitted by contact with the blood of an infected person, which can occur by:

  • Sharing drug needles or cocaine straws with an infected person
  • Using infected needles for tattooing, acupuncture, or piercings
  • Sharing toothbrushes, razors, or other personal items that could have blood on them from an infected person
  • Receiving a blood transfusion in the U.S. before 1990 (after that time, blood banks started testing donated blood for hepatitis C)
  • Having sex with an infected person (uncommon)
  • From pregnant mother to baby if the mother had hepatitis during pregnancy

How Is Hepatitis Diagnosed?

Viral hepatitis is diagnosed with a physical exam and blood tests. Blood tests can show which type of hepatitis you have and can be helpful in determining the proper treatment. 

Other tests may be indicated to check for liver damage, including: 

What Is the Treatment for Hepatitis?

Each type of hepatitis is treated differently. 

Hepatitis A often goes away on its own and home treatment is all that is needed to help the liver recover, such as: 

  • Rest
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Avoiding certain medicines that can be harmful to the liver (never stop taking a prescribed medication without first talking to your doctor)

Hepatitis B often goes away on its own in about 6 months, and can also be treated at home with the above remedies. Other treatments for hepatitis B include: 

  • Antiviral medications 
  • Regular monitoring for signs of liver damage
  • Liver transplant in severe cases

Treatment for hepatitis C is effective on certain forms of the hepatitis C virus. The choice of medications depends on the type of hepatitis C you have, whether you have been treated for the illness before, how much liver damage has occurred, any other underlying medical issues, and other medicines you take. Treatment for hepatitis C usually involves 8 to 12 weeks of oral antiviral medications, such as:

How Do You Prevent Hepatitis?

Both hepatitis A and hepatitis B can be prevented with a vaccine. There is currently no vaccine available to prevent hepatitis C. 

To prevent spreading or getting hepatitis A:

  • Wash hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom, changing diapers, touching garbage or dirty clothes, and before preparing food and eating
  • Follow guidelines for food safety
    • Avoid unpasteurized milk or foods made with it
    • Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before eating 
    • Keep the refrigerator colder than 40°F (4.4°C) and the freezer below 0°F (-17.8°C)
    • Cook meat and seafood until well done
    • Cook egg yolks until firm
    • Wash hands, knives, and cutting boards after contact with raw food

To prevent spreading or getting hepatitis B or hepatitis C:

  • Practice safe sex and use a latex condom each time you have sex
  • Don’t share razors, toothbrushes, or any personal objects that might have blood on them
  • Don’t share needles or syringes
  • Cover cuts and open sores with bandages
  • Clean blood off of things with a mixture of bleach and water: use 9 parts bleach to one-part water 

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Reviewed on 12/22/2020
References
https://www.uptodate.com/contents/hepatitis-a-the-basics

https://www.uptodate.com/contents/hepatitis-b-the-basics

https://www.uptodate.com/contents/hepatitis-c-the-basics

https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/index.htm