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Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver. Most commonly, it develops due to a viral infection or alcohol consumption, but it can also result from toxins, drugs, and certain conditions, including autoimmune conditions.

There are five main types of hepatitis: A, B, C, D, and E. Hepatitis B and C are the most common.

In this article, we address and dispel 11 myths that are commonly associated with hepatitis. To help us unravel some of these misunderstandings, we enlisted the help of two experts.

One is Shelley Facente, Ph.D., who is a research associate in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California, Berkeley. The other is Dr. Lauren Nephew, who is a gastroenterologist at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis.

Some types of hepatitis are self-limiting, which means that they clear up on their own. Others can cause liver cancer or permanent liver damage.

“The hepatitis viruses are actually very different,” Facente told us. She outlined the differences between hepatitis A, B, and C:

  • Hepatitis A often makes people feel very sick for a short time, but it is very rare to have any kind of serious complications or long lasting illness.
  • Hepatitis B can be very serious if a person’s initial viral infection becomes a chronic infection, but that happens in only 2–6% of adults, and some people never have symptoms during their initial infection (though the majority do).
  • Hepatitis C often doesn’t cause symptoms at first, but around 60–80% of people with a hepatitis C infection go on to develop [a] chronic infection, which eventually can lead to liver cancer, liver cirrhosis, and death if left untreated.”

“This is why it’s important to be vaccinated for hepatitis A and B and screened for hepatitis C at least once, even if you feel well,” Facente explained.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 325 million people have hepatitis B, C, or both.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that in the United States in 2019, there were 115,900 acute hepatitis A, B, or C infections.

In 2016, the WHO estimated that 399,000 people died from hepatitis C globally.

Together, hepatitis B and C are the most common causes of cirrhosis and liver cancer. They also cause the most viral hepatitis-related deaths.

Facente told Medical News Today that “since 2013, hepatitis C has been the number one cause of death in the U.S. from an infectious disease, until SARS-CoV-2.”

She continued, “An estimated 71 million people worldwide and 2.4 million people in the U.S. are living with hepatitis C, which is double the number of people in the U.S. living with HIV, even though hepatitis C is totally curable.”

“Hepatitis C virus [does] not spread through breast milk,” said Dr. Nephew. However, she added that people “with cracked or bleeding nipples should temporarily stop breastfeeding until there has been healing.”

Although this myth is widespread, it is still a myth.

“[People] cannot contract hepatitis C virus by kissing, holding hands, sharing eating utensils, mosquitoes, coughing, or sneezing.”

– Dr. Lauren Nephew

“Hepatitis C virus [spreads] when someone comes into contact with blood from someone who has contracted the virus through shared drug injection equipment, non-sterile tattoo equipment, birth, [or], rarely, sex.”

It certainly is not true that people with hepatitis C cannot have sex. However, there are some things to consider.

“Hepatitis C virus [spreads] through contact with blood from someone who has contracted the virus. Sexual activities that increase the risk for exposure to blood (anal sex and sex during menstruation) are high risk,” explained Dr. Nephew.

“For monogamous couples,” she continued, “the [CDC] does not recommend routine condom use to prevent transmission. The risk of transmission is higher in those with HIV and in those with multiple short-term sexual relationships with partners who have hepatitis C virus. Under these conditions, condoms should be routinely used.“

Jaundice is a sign of liver problems,” said Facente, “but not all hepatitis viruses cause liver problems right away.”

“About half of people living with hepatitis C have no symptoms at all until, sometimes decades down the line, when the virus has damaged their liver severely enough for jaundice or other symptoms to appear.”

There is a myth that hepatitis C is genetic and, therefore, can pass from generation to generation. This is not true. “Hepatitis C is a virus. It is not genetic or inherited from parents,” said Dr. Nephew.

In rare circumstances, hepatitis can transmit from the mother to the child during childbirth. However, the chance of this occurring is around 2–8%.

This is not true. Currently, there are vaccines for hepatitis A and B. Both of these, as Facente explains, “require multiple shots to complete the series.”

As it stands, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

“In 2014, researchers at Yale University found that hepatitis C [remained] alive a full 6 weeks after drying on a surface and had enough infectivity to infect someone,” Facente told us.

“Previously,” she continued, “people thought it could only live 4 days outside the body. Unfortunately, it’s a very hearty virus.”

This is also a myth. As Facente said, “Once someone is treated and cured of hepatitis C, they can [contract it] again — antibodies from the original infection don’t protect you like a vaccine might (if we had one).”

Dr. Nephew confirmed that “having hepatitis C virus once does not provide immunity against getting the virus again.” She added that people can contract it again “after clearing the virus naturally or after being treated with medications.”

This is why it remains important to take precautions against reinfection once someone’s initial infection has cleared up.

This is not true. As Dr. Nephew explained, “Current treatments for hepatitis C virus usually involve 8–12 weeks of oral therapy with pills. Cure rates are now over 90%. These new medications have very few side effects and are very well tolerated.”

Hepatitis is a global concern. Understanding how it spreads and how to reduce transmission are the first steps in reducing its impact.

Importantly, as Facente told MNT, “the [CDC recommends] that all adults 18 or over be screened for hepatitis C at least once in their lives, or more frequently if they have [an] ongoing risk for infection.”