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May is National Hepatitis Awareness Month, and even as the month ends, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health partners continue to emphasize the importance of viral hepatitis prevention.

The word "hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver, and it is most often caused by a virus. In the US, the most common types are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications and certain medical conditions can also cause hepatitis.

According to the CDC, more than 4 million Americans have viral hepatitis and an estimated 85,000 become infected each year. When a person first gets viral hepatitis, he or she can develop a very mild illness with few or no symptoms or get a more serious illness lasting months. Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can progress to a “chronic” or lifelong infection, which can cause serious health problems including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death. Most people with chronic hepatitis do not know they are infected and can go 20 or 30 years without showing symptoms.

Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter — even in microscopic amounts — from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by the feces of a person infected with the Hepatitis A virus. Hepatitis A can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months.

Hepatitis B is usually spread when blood, semen, or another body fluid from a person infected with the Hepatitis B virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. This can happen through sexual contact with an infected person or sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment. Hepatitis B can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby at birth. Acute Hepatitis B virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the virus. However, chronic Hepatitis B virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the virus remains in a person’s body and it could lead to death.

Hepatitis C, which could also range from a mild illness to a severe disease, is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with the Hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, Hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

The good news is that viral hepatitis can be prevented as easily as knowing ABC.

The best way to prevent Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated. All children should be vaccinated against Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B. Many adults are at risk for Hepatitis A and/or Hepatitis B and should also be vaccinated.

There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C but its spread can be prevented. Do not share needles or other equipment to inject cosmetic substances, drugs, or steroids and by not using personal items that may have come into contact with an infected person’s blood, such as razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes, or glucose monitors and by not getting tattoos or body piercings at an unlicensed facility or in an informal setting.

Anyone concerned they may be at risk for Hepatitis A, B, or C should visit their local public health department to talk about testing and vaccinations or contact their healthcare provider.

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