What is Viral Hepatitis?
Together hepatitis B and C represent one of the major threats to global health. Hepatitis B and C are both ‘silent’ viruses, and because many people feel no symptoms, you could be infected for years without knowing it. If left untreated, both the hepatitis B and C viruses can lead to liver scarring (cirrhosis). If you have liver cirrhosis, you have a risk of life-threatening complications such as bleeding, ascites (accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity), coma, liver cancer, liver failure and death. In the case of chronic hepatitis B, liver cancer might even appear before you have developed cirrhosis.
In some cases, a diagnosis is made too late and the only option is a liver transplant. If you think you have been at risk, it is important that you get tested as soon as possible and, if diagnosed, consider your treatment options and self-management strategies.
Patients with hepatitis B infection can also be infected with a second virus known as hepatitis delta virus, hepatitis D virus or simply HDV. You can find out more about hepatitis D at hepatitis-delta.org
The Difference Between Hepatitis B and C
- While there is a vaccine that protects against hepatitis B infection, there is no vaccine available for hepatitis C
- Both viruses can be contracted though blood-to-blood contact
- Hepatitis B is more infectious than hepatitis C and can also be spread through saliva, semen and vaginal fluid
- In the case of hepatitis B, infection can occur through having unprotected sex with an infected person. Please note that this is much rarer in the case of hepatitis C
- While unlikely, it is possible to contract hepatitis B through kissing. You cannot contract hepatitis C through kissing
- Neither virus is easily spread through everyday contact. You cannot get infected with hepatitis B or C by shaking hands, coughing or sneezing, or by using the same toilet. There are different treatments for the two viruses. While treatment can control chronic hepatitis B, it can often cure hepatitis C
- Even if treatment is not an option for you, you can do something about your disease. A healthy lifestyle is important. Alcohol, smoking, eating fatty foods, being overweight or extreme dieting (eating no food at all) may worsen your liver disease. Therefore, try to avoid all alcohol, stop smoking, eat a low fat diet with enough fruit and vegetables, and reduce your weight if necessary
The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises that hepatitis B is one of the major diseases affecting mankind today. Hepatitis B is one of the most common viral infections in the world and the WHO estimates that two billion people have been infected with the hepatitis B virus and approximately 350 million people are living with chronic (lifelong) infections. 500,000 – 700,000 people die every year from hepatitis B.
The hepatitis B virus is highly infectious and about 50-100 times more infectious than HIV. In nine out of ten adults, acute hepatitis B infection will go away on its own in the first six months. However, if the virus becomes chronic, it may cause liver cirrhosis and liver cancer after up to 40 years, but in some cases as little as five years after diagnosis.
The hepatitis B virus is transmitted between people through contact with the blood or other body fluids (i.e. saliva, semen and vaginal fluid) of an infected person. Although not all people will have any signs of the virus, those that do may experience the following symptoms:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
- Stomach ache
- Diarrhoea/dark urine/bright stools
- Aching joints
Unlike hepatitis C, there is a vaccine that can prevent infection. If you think you are at risk, you should get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Hepatitis C is different from hepatitis B in that the virus more frequently stays in the body for longer than six months, and therefore becomes chronic. Four out of five people develop a chronic infection, which may cause cirrhosis and liver cancer after 15–30 years. There are approximately 170 million people chronically infected with hepatitis C worldwide. In 2000, the WHO estimated that between three and four million people are newly infected every year.
Hepatitis C is mainly spread through blood-to-blood contact and, similarly to hepatitis B, there are often no symptoms but if they are present can include:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Aching muscles and joints
- Anxiety and depression
- Poor concentration
- Stomach ache
- Loss of appetite
- Dark urine/bright stools