Protect Yourself Against Hepatitis

Hepatitis can strike anywhere, so learn how to prevent contraction

Credit: Wellness Matters

Washing your hands helps prevent hepatitis, as well as other infections

Often viewed as a traveller’s disease, hepatitis can be contracted anywhere. Learn how to protect yourself by taking these preventative measures

If you think defending yourself against hepatitis A and B is only a concern when you’re travelling, 
think again. Hepatitis is a disease without borders that can just as easily be contracted at home. 

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that can be caused by a bacterial infection, by a poison or toxin, as an immune response or (most commonly) by a virus. While scientists have identified six hepatitis viruses, three of them cause approximately 90% of all cases in Canada: hepatitis A, B and C.

Symptoms of hepatitis can include fever, lack of appetite, nausea, abdominal pain, light-coloured stools, dark-coloured urine and jaundice. The incubation period varies according to the type of hepatitis and can range from 15 days to four months. Hepatitis is also infectious, and even infected people without symptoms can still transmit the disease. A blood test is usually needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Types of Hepatitis

Hepatitis A (HAV): People usually get hepatitis A 
by consuming food or water that has been contaminated with feces from infected people. HAV rarely produces permanent liver damage and people usually recover naturally, plus develop a lifelong immunity. An HAV vaccine is available and is highly recommended.

Hepatitis B (HBV): Hepatitis B is a more serious infection as it can cause permanent scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and can also lead to cancer and even death. HBV is found in the blood and body fluids. One way to become infected with HBV is by having unprotected sex. It can also be transmitted via unsterilized needles (drug use, tattoo, body piercing), through the sharing of personal items such as razors and toothbrushes with an infected person, from an HBV-infected mother to her unborn child and through exposure to the blood of an infected person.

Most people with HBV have no symptoms, which is why it is especially important to take precautions. People infected with HBV generally recover and develop a lifelong immunity to the disease. However, 5% to 10% of those affected typically go on to develop a severe, life-threatening chronic hepatitis. A safe and effective vaccine is available against HBV and is highly recommended for at-risk populations (e.g., people who use IV drugs, people who engage in sex with multiple partners, and health-care workers).

Hepatitis C (HCV): Hepatitis C is the most serious form of hepatitis and is transmitted through direct exposure to blood or blood products. Like HBV, it has a very high morbidity and mortality associated with it. Ninety per cent of people with HCV will carry it indefinitely and over time are at risk of developing profound fatigue, cirrhosis and cancer. There is currently no vaccine.

Taking Precautions Against Hepatitis

Hepatitis is a largely preventable disease. Your first line of defence is to be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. Vaccines (both individual and in combination) are available through your doctor 
or at travel clinics. Other ways to reduce your risk of contracting hepatitis include: 

  • Washing your hands before eating and after using the bathroom.

  • Using a condom while having sex.

  • Ensuring tattoo, body-piercing and acupuncture needles are thoroughly sterilized.

  • Avoiding the sharing of syringes or other drug-related equipment.

  • Avoiding the sharing of personal items such as razors, toothbrush, etc.

Originally published in Wellness Matters, Canada Wide Media’s quarterly newsletter on health and wellness.