HEPATITIS B AND C

What is viral hepatitis?

Hepatitis B and C are forms of viral hepatitis. Many different viruses can infect the liver causing short term inflammation which usually resolves. However, two viruses called Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) and Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) commonly cause longer long-term infection in the liver called “chronic hepatitis”.


Who is at risk?

Hepatitis B is common in certain parts of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and parts of Europe. It is most commonly acquired in infancy from mother to child. Vaccinations of newborns immediately after birth has dramatically reduced this transmission. 


In adults, Hepatitis B can be transmitted through infected blood or other body fluids. Therefore exposure to infection is increased in the following situations:

  • Having sex with an infected person

  • Having multiple sexual partners

  • People with sexually transmitted diseases

  • Men who have sex with men (MSM)

  • Those who inject drugs, share needles, razors toothbrushes

  • Living with a person who has chronic Hepatitis B

  • Infants born to an infected mother

  • Occupational exposure

  • Travel to countries with increased rates of Hepatitis B


Hepatitis C is transmitted through exposure to infected blood, so the highest risk to exposure is in those who inject drugs, especially if sharing needles. There is also increased risk in MSM. 


What are the symptoms of viral hepatitis?

The early (acute) phase of viral hepatitis can cause symptoms of nausea, vomiting, fever, abdominal and joint pain, jaundice and dark urine. These symptoms are more likely to occur in acute HBV rather than HCV. However, when infection becomes long term (chronic), most people do not have symptoms, but some can exhibit non-specific symptoms such as tiredness and joint pains.


Does viral hepatitis progress?

Yes, in those with chronic viral hepatitis, ongoing liver inflammation can lead to advanced scarring (cirrhosis) in 15-30% of people after 30 years. This has significant consequences including risk of liver failure and liver cancer (HCC). In individuals with chronic viral hepatitis, the degree of liver damage can be assessed by a combination of blood tests, imaging studies and sometimes taking a liver biopsy.


How is viral hepatitis diagnosed?

Both hepatitis B and C can be easily diagnosed through simple blood tests. Often these tests are done routinely in higher risk groups (e.g. in Sexual Health clinics), or they may be requested if liver blood tests are found to be abnormal.


Is there treatment for viral hepatitis?

Yes, there is effective treatment for both hepatitis B and C. In general the treatment for hepatitis B does not completely cure the infection, but is very effective in suppressing the virus, so that liver inflammation is prevented. Whether patients need to be on medication depends on several factors that need assessment by an expert. We now have very effective treatment for hepatitis C which cures the infection.

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