Reviewed by Ruthann Cunningham, MD, July 7, 2017

Hepatitis is a broad term that means "inflammation of the liver" which can be caused by a variety of things such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse and certain viruses . Viral hepatitis is a condition caused by a variety of viruses that attack the liver. It's possible to be infected with a hepatitis virus and not have any symptoms.

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Types of hepatitis

There are three types of viral hepatitis that cause the majority of hepatitis cases: A, B, and C. Hepatitis A is typically contracted by eating or drinking contaminated food or water or through anal-oral sex . It can cause acute symptoms, but hepatitis A typically does not lead to long-term complications. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C, however, can lead to chronic hepatitis, which can cause lasting damage to the liver and require long term treatment. When chronic hepatitis occurs, it can cause serious liver damage such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, or death.

Hepatitis in the United States

There are about 1.4 million people in the US living with chronic hepatitis B, and about 3.7 million living with chronic hepatitis C, according to the CDC. The number of new cases is declining, thanks to the development of a hepatitis B vaccination and increased awareness of techniques for prevention.

Importance of testing

Testing for viral hepatitis remains the only way to know whether or not you have the disease. Some people with viral hepatitis may experience symptoms, but many people living with hepatitis don't have any signs or symptoms and are unaware of their diagnosis. Even without symptoms, the virus can continue to cause lasting damage to the liver. For this reason, getting tested and catching an infection in its early stages is important to avoid serious outcomes.

Who should get tested?

Since hepatitis B and C can be spread via blood and bodily fluids, anyone who has used intravenous drugs, healthcare workers who have increased exposure to blood, anyone receiving blood transfusions/hemodialysis (more common in those outside the US) and anyone engaging in unprotected sex should consider being tested. In addition, since most undiagnosed cases of hepatitis C are among baby boomers, testing is especially important for members of that age group.

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