Hepatitis B and C

The ABCs of hepatitis B and C

Hepatitis is an infection or inflammation of the liver. It is most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are 6 types of hepatitis viruses – types A, B, C, D, E and G.

Two types, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, are linked to cancer.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B (HBV) is the most common type of hepatitis virus. It is very infectious and is spread mainly by being exposed to infected blood or other bodily fluids (such as semen or vaginal fluid). HBV is more likely to cause symptoms than hepatitis C.

HBV infection can cause flu-like symptoms and yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice). Most people recover completely from HBV infection within a few months and develop lifelong protection against it. Only about 10% of people have an infection that lasts a long time.

Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C (HCV) does not often cause symptoms, so many people with HCV infection don’t know they have it. The most common way to get HCV is through contaminated blood. Some people recover from their infection, but most people with HCV infection develop hepatitis C that lasts a long time.

How do people get HBV and HCV?

Both hepatitis B and C are spread from person to person through sexual contact or by sharing syringes or needles for injecting drugs. They can also be spread during invasive medical, dental or other procedures using contaminated equipment.

HBV can be spread through unprotected sex. HCV may also be spread through unprotected sex, but this is less common. Both viruses can be spread from an infected mother to her baby during birth.

Healthcare workers may be exposed to HBV, and to a lesser extent to HCV, if they accidently get a needle stick or sharp equipment injury while caring for someone with HBV and HCV infection.

Hepatitis B and C viruses are not spread by casual contact, such as hugging, shaking hands, sneezing or coughing. HBV and HCV are not spread by air, food or water.

Can I get HBV or HCV by donating blood?

HBV and HCV can also be passed on through transfusions of contaminated blood or blood products. Canadian Blood Services tests every blood donation for hepatitis B and C viruses. Only blood that does not contain these viruses is used, so the risk of getting hepatitis through a blood transfusion is very low.

Hepatitis viruses and cancer

Having certain types of hepatitis increases your risk of developing some cancers.

HBV and HCV cause a long-lasting infection that increases the risk of developing liver cancer. And the risk of developing liver cancer is even greater if you have been infected with both hepatitis B and C viruses.

Infection with one or both hepatitis viruses also increases the risk of bile duct cancer and some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

HBV and HCV infection can also cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Cirrhosis of the liver also increases the risk of developing liver cancer.

Testing, treating and reducing risk of hepatitis

If you think you’re at risk for hepatitis infection, talk to your healthcare provider about getting tested. A blood test is usually done to see if you have been exposed to the virus. Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should get tested for hepatitis.

Get treated for hepatitis infection

There are treatments for hepatitis. Treating long-lasting hepatitis B or C infection can reduce the amount of the virus in a person, which may lower the risk of liver cancer.

How to reduce your risk

Get vaccinated
There is a vaccine that can protect you against hepatitis B. The vaccine is recommended for all children and for adults who are at increased risk for infection, such as healthcare workers, injection drug users or those travelling to a high-risk country (like Africa or parts of Asia). There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C.

All provinces and territories offer publicly funded vaccine programs for children and teens. The age when children and teens are offered the hepatitis B vaccine varies by province or territory.
Practise safer sex
If you are sexually active, use a condom and other barriers safely to help protect against hepatitis B and hepatitis C, as well as other sexually transmitted infections.
Protect yourself from infected blood or body fluids

Don’t share needles or other drug-use equipment. If you use intravenous drugs, take part in a needle exchange program.

Don’t share personal care articles, such as razors, scissors, nail clippers or toothbrushes, with an infected person.

If you get a tattoo, body piercing or acupuncture, make sure all equipment is clean and sterile. Needles should always be new, not used, and never homemade.

Wear latex gloves whenever you might come into contact with someone else’s blood or body fluids.