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Hepatitis viruses

Hepatitis is infection or inflammation of the liver. It is most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are 6 types of hepatitis viruses – type A, B, C, D, E and G. Only hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) can cause a long-term infection that increases the chance of developing the most common type of liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma). The risk of developing liver cancer is even greater if people are infected with both hepatitis B and C viruses.

HBV and HCV infection can also cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Cirrhosis of the liver also increases the risk of developing liver cancer.

  • Hepatitis B virus

    HBV is the most common type of hepatitis virus in the world. It is very infectious. HBV infection is more likely to cause symptoms than HCV. HBV infection can cause flu-like symptoms and yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice). Most people recover completely from HBV infection within a few months and develop lifelong protection against it. Only about 10% of people have persistent infection and become chronic carriers of the virus.

  • Hepatitis C virus

    HCV does not often cause symptoms, so many people with chronic HCV infection do not know they have it. Some people recover from their infection, but most people with HCV infection go on to develop chronic hepatitis C and are carriers of the virus.

  • Exposure

    HBV spreads mainly through exposure to infected blood or other body fluids (such as semen or vaginal fluid). The most common way that HCV spreads is through exposure to contaminated blood.

    •  HBV and HCV are spread from person to person by sharing syringes or needles for injecting drugs. They can also be spread during invasive medical, dental or other procedures using contaminated equipment.
    • HBV and HCV can also be passed on through transfusions of contaminated blood or blood products. Canadian Blood Services tests every blood donation for hepatitis B and C viruses. Only blood that does not contain these viruses is used, so the risk of getting hepatitis through a blood transfusion is very low.
    • Healthcare workers may be exposed to HBV, and to a lesser extent to HCV, if they accidently get a needle stick or sharp equipment injury while caring for someone with HBV and HCV infection.
    • HBV can be spread by having unprotected sex with an infected person. HCV may also be spread by having unprotected sex, but at a lower rate than HBV.
    • HBV and HCV can be spread from an infected mother to her infant during birth.

    Hepatitis B and C viruses are not spread by casual contact, such as hugging, shaking hands, sneezing or coughing. HBV and HCV are not spread by air, food or water.

  • Hepatitis viruses and cancer

    Chronic HBV infection causes inflammation and cirrhosis, which can lead to liver cancer. Also, there may be a link between chronic infection with HBV and bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) and certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

     It is not really known how HCV causes liver cancer. It may cause long-standing inflammation or scarring of the liver, which leads to cancer. Besides liver cancer, chronic infection with HCV causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma. There may be a link between chronic infection with HCV and cholangiocarcinoma.

  • How to test for hepatitis

    If you think you are at risk for hepatitis infection, talk to your healthcare provider about getting tested. A blood test is usually done to see if you have been exposed to the virus. Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should get tested for hepatitis.

  • Reducing your risk

    To help reduce the risk of hepatitis infection:

    • Get vaccinated against hepatitis B virus.
      • The HBV vaccine is recommended for all children and for adults who are at increased risk for infection, such as healthcare workers, injection drug users or those travelling to a high-risk country (like Africa or parts of Asia).
      • Universal immunization against HBV is part of the publicly funded vaccine programs offered in all provinces and territories. The age at which children and adolescents are offered HBV vaccine varies between provinces and territories.
    • At this time, no vaccine available protects against hepatitis C virus.
    • Practise safe sex.
      • Use a condom to help protect against hepatitis B and C virus, as well as other sexually transmitted infections.
    • Do not share any needles, syringes or other drug use equipment.
    • Do not share personal care articles, such as razors, scissors, nail clippers or toothbrush with an infected person.
    • Make sure all equipment is clean and sterile when you get a tattoo, body piercing or acupuncture.
    • Wear latex gloves when you come into contact with someone else’s blood or body fluids.
    • Get treated for hepatitis infection.
      • There are treatments for hepatitis. Treating chronic hepatitis B or C infection can reduce the amount of the virus in a person, which may lower the risk of liver cancer.
 
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