There are few viral infections with more misconceptions centered around them than the strains of viral hepatitis. This can largely be credited to the similarities in the three names. Today, we wanted to shed some light on the key differences between the three strains of viral hepatitis: A, B, and C. It's important to note that hepatitis on its own is the term to used to describe inflammation of the liver—and that can be caused by non-viral means as well. For the purposes of this post, we will only be looking at the viral strains of hepatitis.
First, let us explore what they share in common. All strains of viral hepatitis are caused by a viral infection that manifests in the liver. All strains share common symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Gray-colored bowel movements
- Join pain
Since all forms of viral hepatitis affect the liver, those who suffer from any strain should refrain from consuming alcohol.
The hepatitis A virus (also known as HAV) is found in the fecal matter of people infected with the virus. That means that anyone in close personal contact with a patient suffering from HAV is at risk of becoming infected—sexual contact, eating food or sharing water, for example.
Like all strains, there is no cure for HAV—but fortunately, there is no chance of HAV progressing into being a chronic infection. The incubation period for HAV is 15 to 50 days, with a chance to relapse into prolonged illness over a 6-9 month period.
The good news is that vaccinations for HAV are available, and have been since 1995. HAV can also be prevented by using proper hygiene and sanitation techniques.
Occurrences of HAV decreased in the years following the release of the vaccine, but have increased in recent years largely in communities experiencing economic instability. If you are at risk of coming in contact with virus or are at increased risk of developing complications as a result of having HAV, you should be vaccinated. All children should also receive the HAV vaccination at 12 months of age.
The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is not spread as readily as HAV—it can only be transferred through blood and certain bodily fluids. Unprotected sexual contact with an infected person, sharing needles when using intravenous drugs, or exposure to needle sticks are risks for exposure. The virus is also transferred from an infected mother to her baby during birth.
Also unlike HAV, chronic infection from HBV is possible—but occurs only in less than 5% of people infected over the age of 5 years old. Chances for chronic infection are much higher at ages younger than five—meaning the risk for children is much higher. Vaccines are available to prevent HBV— and should be administered to newborns within 12 hours of childbirth if delivered to infected mothers.
The hepatitis C virus (HCV)—like HBV—is also spread through blood and bodily fluids from an infected person being introduced to the body of an unaffected person. That means HCV is most often transferred through sharing needles or needlesticks that occur on the job. Transmission through sex is possible but is not as common as it is for HBV.
The worst news for HCV is that there is no vaccine available to prevent the disease. It is also by far the virus most likely to develop into a chronic infection. Approximately 75-85% of acute cases of HCV infection will go on to be chronic. Every year, about 20,000 people in the United Stated infected with HCV die from complications associated with the infection.
For more information about viral hepatitis, including how to receive vaccines for strains HAV and HBV, contact your healthcare professional.