One of the common misconceptions regarding liver disease and hepatitis is that it is highly contagious. This is not correct and I wanted to take some time to clarify this issue. Definitions are a wonderful place to start. Hepatitis simply means that there is inflammation in the liver. It is derived from the Latin word “hep” meaning liver and “itis” meaning inflammation. The word hepatitis does not connote etiology of disease. For this we use a modifier such as the word autoimmune or the letters A, B or C, D or E.
Hepatitis A is a virus that affects the liver and is generally acquired through the ingestion of contaminated food. This virus causes acute disease but never causes chronic disease. It can be passed from person to person as its transmission is of the fecal-oral route. Therefore, any person who has been exposed to someone with acute hepatitis A should see their physician to obtain immunoglobulin injections to prevent disease acquisition. In addition, there is a vaccine available for hepatitis A. Two doses of vaccine are given over a six-month period and this will prevent the development of hepatitis A in the future. Once someone has been exposed,they can’t get it again.
Hepatitis B is a virus that affects the liver. It is commonly acquired from either sexual contact or through exposure to contaminated body fluids such as blood, saliva, semen, etc. Casual contact does not lead to the spread of hepatitis B. However, close intimate contact with someone infected with hepatitis B can lead to disease acquisition.
Hepatitis B vaccine is given either in two injections over a two-month period or three injections over a six-month period. Once complete, a person should be checked for immunity. Once immunity has been achieved, there is lifelong protection against hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C is another virus causing hepatitis and is the only hepatitis virus that can be cured with medication. Transmission of hepatitis C is blood to blood. Common ways of acquiring hepatitis C are through the recreational use of intravenous drugs and intranasal cocaine, or having received a blood transfusion prior to 1992. There has been a tremendous increase in acute hepatitis C directly related to the opioid epidemic. Tattoos, body piercing, and acupuncture have also been associated with acquisition of hepatitis C as has exposure to the virus in an unsafe medical environment. While this disease is common, transmission from person to person is rare unless there is blood-to-blood contact. Most cases of hepatitis C are curable with simple oral medications.
Hepatitis E is another virus that affects the liver and its acquisition is similar to that of hepatitis A. This virus causes acute hepatitis, not chronic disease. It is acquired mainly through the fecal-oral route by ingesting contaminated water or meats, especially pork and pork products. It can also be transmitted by transfusion of infected blood products and from mother to child at time of birth. There is no vaccine for hepatitis E available in the U.S. and once someone has been exposed, they cannot get it again.
Other forms of liver disease such as autoimmune hepatitis, drug-induced liver disease, primary biliary cholangitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis, hemochromatosis and alcoholic and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis cause a hepatitis type picture are not caused by infectious agents and cannot be spread from person to person.
In summary, only those liver diseases caused by infectious agents are considered to be able to be passed to others. The most common types of hepatitis spread in households or amongst persons are hepatitis A B and E. Vaccination is available for hepatitis A and B and early vaccination will prevent any chance of disease acquisition.
Liver doctors recommend vaccination for all people not previously exposed to hepatitis A or B.