What is the difference between Hepatitis A, B and C?
Richard Manch, MD, is the medical director of the Banner Good Samaritan Liver Disease Center in Phoenix, Ariz.
Question: Can you explain the difference between Hepatitis A, B and C (and other letters)? If I get a vaccination for hepatitis, which am I protected from?
Answer: “Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. It can have many causes, including viruses, medications and alcohol. Most commonly, however, we think of the viruses, called A, B and C.
Hepatitis A causes an acute hepatitis that almost always gets better on its own. It is easily spread from person to person, in food and water, and can infect many people at once. Hepatitis B can be both acute (short-term illness) and chronic (ongoing illness), and is spread through blood or other body fluids in various ways. Hepatitis C is almost always chronic and spreads only by blood. Hepatitis A and B can be prevented by vaccination, but not Hepatitis C. There are now many good medications available to treat chronic Hepatitis B and C.
The symptoms of acute hepatitis include yellowing of the skin and eyes, nausea, fever and fatigue. Chronic hepatitis may have no symptoms, and can last many years and lead to cirrhosis of the liver, which means the liver becomes heavily scarred and less functional. Cirrhosis can sometimes lead to cancer of the liver or liver failure, both of which may require a liver transplant.
Prevention is very important. Other than vaccination, people should be very careful about hygiene (such as hand-washing after using the restroom) to prevent Hepatitis A. Hepatitis B and C can be transmitted by sex or sharing needles, razors, or toothbrushes with someone who has the disease. In the U.S., there are about 4 million people with Hepatitis C, and 2 million with Hepatitis B. All three forms of viral hepatitis are very common around the world.