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The ABCs of hepatitis B and C
Hepatitis is an infection or inflammation of the liver. It is most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are 6 types of hepatitis viruses – types A, B, C, D, E and G.
Two types, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, are linked to cancer.
Hepatitis B (HBV) is the most common type of hepatitis virus. It is very infectious and is spread mainly by being exposed to infected blood or other bodily fluids (such as semen or vaginal fluid). HBV is more likely to cause symptoms than hepatitis C.
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 an infection that lasts a long time.
Hepatitis C (HCV) does not often cause symptoms, so many people with HCV infection don’t know they have it. The most common way to get HCV is through contaminated blood. Some people recover from their infection, but most people with HCV infection develop hepatitis C that lasts a long time.
How do people get HBV and HCV?
Both Hepatitis B and C are spread from person to person through sexual contact or by sharing syringes or needles for injecting drugs. They can also be spread during invasive medical, dental or other procedures using contaminated equipment.
HBV can be spread through unprotected sex. HCV may also be spread through unprotected sex, but this is less common. Both viruses can be spread from an infected mother to her baby during birth.
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.
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.
Can I get HBV or HCV by donating blood?
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.