The three most common types of hepatitis, a disease characterized by inflammation of the liver, are those caused by the hepatitis A, B, and C viruses. All viral types are contagious—that is, they can be spread from one person to another—although the methods of transmission vary.
NYU Langone doctors recommend specific preventive steps for each type to limit your risk of acquiring or spreading infection.
Vaccines for hepatitis A and hepatitis B are the most effective preventive measures against those viruses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended these vaccines for all babies as part of routine healthcare since the 1990s.
The vaccine can be administered to people of any age. If you were not vaccinated as a baby, it is fine to be vaccinated now. Vaccination provides long-term protection from infection.
Even if you have recently been exposed to the virus, the vaccine may prevent infection. Ideally, vaccination takes place within 24 hours of a possible exposure.
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Our doctors recommend adopting certain behaviors—such as avoiding shared needles and other risk factors—to prevent infection.
If you plan to travel to a country where hepatitis A is common and you were not vaccinated as a baby, NYU Langone doctors strongly recommend getting a hepatitis A vaccine before you go. The vaccine consists of two injections administered six months apart, so it’s important to plan ahead.
Even if you plan a last-minute trip and have time to get only the first injection, the vaccine provides some protection. You can get the second injection when you return.
If you cannot get both doses before traveling, doctors may recommend an injection called immune globulin, which provides immediate, temporary protection against infection in general. Immune globulin is a substance produced by extracting healthy immunoglobulin proteins, called antibodies, from blood obtained from donors. When injected into the bloodstream, these healthy antibodies may prevent infection.
Your doctor may also recommend immune globulin if you have not been vaccinated but are exposed to hepatitis A. Immune globulin may reduce the severity of infection when given shortly after exposure.
Side effects of the hepatitis A vaccine include soreness where the shot was given, headache, and tiredness. Rarely, this vaccine may cause an allergic reaction within a few minutes or hours of the injection. If you experience a sudden start of flu-like symptoms after being vaccinated, contact your doctor immediately.
NYU Langone doctors recommend the hepatitis B vaccine for anyone who was not vaccinated as a baby and is at risk for becoming infected.
Risk factors include needle sharing in intravenous drug use, multiple sex partners, sex with a person with hepatitis B, men having sex with other men, tattoos or body piercing done by someone who uses unclean instruments, long-term dialysis, sharing a toothbrush or razor with someone who is infected, and travel to countries where hepatitis B is common.
Hepatitis B vaccination consists of three injections. The second and third injections are administered one month and six months after the first.
If you plan to travel to a country where hepatitis B is common, doctors recommend starting the vaccination process at least six months beforehand to ensure full protection.
Side effects of the hepatitis B vaccination are rare, but you may feel soreness where the injection was given. The hepatitis B vaccine cannot cause a hepatitis B infection.
If you cannot get all three doses of the hepatitis B vaccine before traveling, doctors may recommend an injection of immune globulin, which provides immediate, temporary protection. Your doctor may also recommend it if you have not been vaccinated but are exposed to the hepatitis B virus.
Ensuring good hygiene and avoiding contact with contaminated objects or bodily fluids can protect against infection with any of the hepatitis viruses. Also, doctors recommend that you avoid drinking alcohol if you’re at an increased risk of viral hepatitis because it can accelerate the liver damage associated with infection.
Hepatitis A is spread through close contact with an infected person or contact with contaminated stool, which may affect water and food in places with poor sanitation. If you travel to a country where hepatitis A is common, doctors recommend avoiding tap water, fresh fruit unless it can be peeled, and vegetables, as well as frequently washing your hands.
Hepatitis B is spread through bodily fluids, including blood and semen. Practicing safe sex can help prevent infection. The hepatitis B virus can also live outside the body for up to seven days, so avoid sharing toothbrushes, razors, or needles. Tattoos and piercings can also spread this infection if the needles used aren’t sterile.
Hepatitis C is spread through contact with contaminated blood. The best prevention is to avoid sharing needles, which can transfer small amounts of blood from one person to another. Contact with anything that has contaminated blood on it—such as a tissue, a bandage, or hands and fingers—can spread the virus. Safe sex and good hygiene can also protect you from infection.
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