Hepatitis A is primarily an acute infection that gets better on its own. The severity of hepatitis A can range from a mild illness that lasts a few weeks to a severe condition that lingers for months. Hepatitis A generally does not become chronic like hepatitis B and C do. "In about 99 percent of people, hepatitis A causes no long-term concerns [and is] very rarely serious," said Dr. Bruce Bacon, a professor of internal medicine in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at the St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri.
Hepatitis A is spread through fecal contamination, often in food or drinks, according to the CDC. Its symptoms, which are similar to those of other foodborne illnesses, include fever, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Hepatitis A does not require any specific treatment, and there's a vaccine available to prevent it.
Hepatitis B, on the other hand, is a more serious form of viral hepatitis. It often causes no symptoms, leaving people unaware that they've been infected. The disease can pass from mother to infant during birth or by having sex with an infected partner, sharing drug needles or even sharing such items as a razor or toothbrush with an infected person, according to the CDC. There's no cure for hepatitis B, although a vaccine can prevent the disease.
"For hepatitis B, most of the time transmission is from mother to child at childbirth," Bacon said. "But in the U.S., if hepatitis B is identified in the mother, the baby can be vaccinated at the time of childbirth and given [an additional medication] that can usually break the transmission cycle."
Hepatitis C is spread through the blood, according to Bernstein. That's why people who've shared straws to snort cocaine or needles to inject drugs face a higher risk for infections. Also at greater risk are people who had blood transfusions before 1992, when the blood supply started being screened routinely for hepatitis C.
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