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The ABCs of Hepatitis

What You Need to Know

Viral hepatitis is an infection that affects the liver. Although there are five types of viral hepatitis (each caused by a different virus), the most common in the United States are hepatitis A, B and C. Millions live with chronic viral hepatitis, some unknowingly, because they do not always experience frequent symptoms. Here is everything you need to know about hepatitis, symptoms and treatment options.

What Is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is transmitted through ingestion of contaminated food or water, or through contact with an infectious person. Those who travel internationally in third world countries should be vaccinated against this virus, and should be particularly careful with food or water in foreign countries. Symptoms can include fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, dark urine, clay-colored stools or jaundice. Illness can last anywhere from two to six months and occasionally can be severe. Fortunately, Hepatitis A never is a chronic infection.

What Is Hepatitis B?

More than 2 billion people around the world have been infected with hepatitis B. Unlike hepatitis A, hepatitis B is a chronic infection in some. In those people, it can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Many people that have hepatitis B in the United States immigrated from parts of the world where it is more common. In the United States, most cases of hepatitis B originate with unprotected sex with someone who is infected. Others who are at risk include people who:

  • Work with human blood or needles
  • Spend time in long-term care facilities or prisons
  • Have HIV
  • Have a blood-clotting disorder
  • Use IV drugs
  • Spread from mother to baby at childbirth

What Is Hepatitis C?

The most common form of chronic viral hepatitis in the United States, hepatitis C virus is spread by contact with an infected person’s blood. Hepatitis C is frequently chronic, and can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer in that setting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 3.5 million people in the United States may have it. Those who are at risk include those who:

  • Work with human blood or needles
  • Have a blood-clotting disorder and received clotting factors before 1987
  • Have kidney failure and get dialysis treatment
  • Have ever used IV drugs
  • Have unprotected intercourse

Steven L. Flamm, MD, Northwestern Medical Group, Hepatology


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Steven L. Flamm, MD
Steven L. Flamm, MD
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