Hepatitis means inflammation (swelling) of the liver. There are various causes - infections, alcohol, some types of medication, toxins and poisons. This gives information on viral hepatitis (hepatitis caused by a viral infection).
Hepatitis can be hard to spot but can cause serious damage to the liver and health problems if left untreated.
Several different viruses can cause Hepatitis and some can be passed on through sex with an infected partner.
There can be other causes, such as drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time or as an infection often spread by sharing needles.
This section gives details about sexually transmitted hepatitis.
There are several different types of virus that cause hepatitis.
Some are more easily caught than others and most of them can be passed on through unprotected sex.
Viral hepatitis is caused by a group of viruses (A, B, C, D & E). The viruses differ in how common they are, how they are spread and how they are treated.
Hepatitis A and E
The Hepatitis A and E viruses are present in the digestive tract and are acquired by
swallowing something that has been infected with faeces (poo) or by mouth contact with the anal area.
Hepatitis A is found across the world but is more common in countries where sewage disposal is poor. Hepatitis E is common in Asia but uncommon in the UK. There is a vaccine that can protect you if you are going to high risk areas.
Hepatitis A and E cause flu-like symptoms that usually clear up within 2 months but may last up to 6 months.
Hepatitis B and D
Hepatitis B and D can be spread by;
- sharing needles (or 'works')
- through unsterile medical procedures
- during sexual contact
- from mother to baby at or before birth
Hepatitis B is very infectious and is easily transmitted by all types of sex.
Hepatitis D can only cause infection if you are already infected with the Hepatitis B virus, but passed on in the same way
Most people notice no hepatitis symptoms at all especially in the early stages.
Initial infection can cause mild fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort and yellowing of the skin and eyes. These can take some weeks to appear.
Some people with hepatitis B and C cannot clear the infection naturally and become carriers.
Although appearing outwardly healthy they are still infectious and may develop problems with liver inflammation or liver cancer later in life.
You can have hepatitis for many years without any obvious symptoms that might make you or your GP think you have it. During this time you can still pass on the infection to others and your liver can be being damaged further. If you think you might have hepatitis please contact your GP or sexual health service for a test.
Hepatitis testing is simple and requires giving a sample of blood. If you or your partner is worried that you may have viral hepatitis, you should see your GP or a sexual health service.
A blood test is carried out to look for any antibodies to the virus which is a chemical in the blood produced in response to an infection. If these are present then you have been in contact with the virus/infected at some time.
In the case of hepatitis B and C, the lab will then look for the actual virus to determine if you are a carrier or have naturally cleared the infection.
If you have ever injected drugs, even if it was a long time ago, you should get tested for hepatitis C.
In early infection, general management depends on rest and good general health measures, whilst waiting for the infection to subside.
Blood tests will check that the liver is returning to normal. Alcohol and some types of
medication should be avoided during this recovery period.
There is no cure for hepatitis A and E. They both clear on their own.
Some people will naturally clear the virus. Others may have treatment which in some cases can clear the virus. If the infection remains (becomes chronic), long-term medication can manage symptoms and prevent long-term damage to health.
Some people will clear the virus on their own. Infection be treated with anti-viral
medications. There are different types of medications, some are taken as a tablet and others are given as injections. Current medication makes treatment very effective but it can take months to treat and the side effects of the medication can be unpleasant
The best way to avoid infection with viral hepatitis during sex is to:
- always use a condom for anal or vaginal sex
- always use a condom or dental dams for oral sex
- always use a dental dam when licking or kissing someone's anus.
Both hepatitis A and hepatitis B can be prevented with vaccination. The hepatitis vaccine is freely available in sexual health services. These are given as a course of injections over 3-6 months.
Hepatitis vaccination is especially recommended for men who have sex with men, anyone from or having sex with people from countries where hepatitis B is more common, and those with multiple sexual partners.
Partners of anyone with Hepatitis B should be vaccinated as well as anyone with multiple sexual partners, injecting drug users or partners of, sex workers or clients of, from or contacts of people from areas of the world where Hepatitis B is more common.
There is no vaccination available to prevent Hepatitis C.
Prevention of Hepatitis C relies on having safer sex not sharing needles, and avoiding any unclean medical procedures including piercings or tattoos.