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What is hepatitis?

A photo of Naveen Puri
Associate Clinical Director, and Lead Medical Appraiser, Bupa Global & UK
20 April 2022
Next review due April 2025

Hepatitis is an inflammation of your liver. It’s often caused by infection with a virus, which can sometimes be sexually transmitted. Here I’ll discuss how to recognise signs and symptoms of hepatitis, and what to do if you think you might have it.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis?

There are many different types of hepatitis, including hepatitis A, B and C. The symptoms are similar no matter which type of hepatitis you have. Hepatitis tends to develop in phases. To being with your symptoms may be quite general, and include:

  • generally feeling unwell and lacking energy
  • losing your appetite
  • sickness and vomiting
  • a fever
  • abdominal pain on your right side, just below your ribs
  • aching joints
  • a raised, itchy rash

After several days, you may develop symptoms of jaundice. These can last for a few weeks and can include:

  • yellowing skin and eyes
  • darker pee and lighter-coloured poo

How serious is hepatitis?

Hepatitis A doesn’t usually cause any long-term problems, but it can still take several months to fully recover. But hepatitis B and C can be more serious, and the illnesses can become chronic (last a long time).

They can also cause permanent damage to your liver. This is why it’s important to seek help if you have symptoms of hepatitis, or if you’ve been exposed to the virus.

What causes hepatitis?

The main cause of hepatitis is infection with a virus. The three types of hepatitis that are most common in the UK are hepatitis A, B and C. There are several ways you might get these viruses, but they can all be passed on through sexual contact.

Hepatitis A is spread in the poo of infected people. You might get it if you drink contaminated water or eat food prepared by someone who has the infection. You can also get it through close contact with an infected person. You’re at particular risk if you have sex that involves touching the person’s anus with your fingers, mouth or tongue (rimming).

Hepatitis B and C are spread via blood. You might get it through sexual contact, especially if you take part in sexual practices that could lead to tears and contact with blood. This can include anal intercourse and fisting (inserting a hand into a partner’s vagina or anus). You can also get it through exposure to infected blood or sharing needles when injecting drugs. You’re at greater risk if you have multiple sexual partners, you have unprotected sex, or you’re a man who has sex with men.

How do you get tested for hepatitis?

You should see a GP or sexual health service or doctor as soon as possible if you think you have symptoms of hepatitis. You should also seek advice if you think you’ve been exposed to a hepatitis virus, even if you don’t have symptoms. A doctor or nurse will tell you whether they recommend having a test.

Hepatitis is usually tested for with a blood test. Your GP or sexual health service will organise this for you.

If you see a GP, they may also suggest going to a genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic. This is to get tested for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

How is hepatitis treated?

Treatment will depend on what type of hepatitis you have. Sometimes (especially for hepatitis A), the virus can go away on its own, without any specific treatment. Your doctor may just recommend medicines to help with aches and pains, itchiness, sickness and vomiting.

If you have hepatitis B or C, you’ll be referred to a doctor who specialises in liver. You may need antiviral therapy to help clear the virus. If you have chronic hepatitis (it’s lasted a long time), you may need regular blood tests and review with a liver specialist.

You should tell any sexual partners if you’ve been diagnosed with hepatitis. You may be asked to provide details of any recent close contacts so that these people can be notified.

Is there a vaccine for hepatitis?

There are vaccines available for hepatitis A and B. You may be offered vaccination if you’re at high risk of getting the infection. This includes if you inject drugs, and if you’re a man who has sex with men, especially if you have multiple sexual partners.

You may also be able to have the vaccine if you’ve been in contact with someone known to have hepatitis A or B. This can help to prevent you becoming infected.

How can I reduce my risk of getting hepatitis?

Apart from having the vaccine, there are many things you can do to lower your risk of getting hepatitis. This includes avoiding sharing needles if you inject drugs. It’s also important to practice safe sex to reduce your risk of getting hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections. This includes the following.

  • Use a condom whenever you have vaginal, oral or anal sex with a penis.
  • During oral sex, you can use a latex square (dental dam) to cover the anus and vaginal opening, including the area around it.
  • Don’t share sex toys. If you do, wash them well or cover them with a new condom before anyone else uses them.
  • Wear latex gloves if you’re taking part in fisting (or appropriate latex-alternative gloves if either of you have a latex allergy).
  • Before you have unprotected sex with somebody new, have a test for STIs.
A photo of Naveen Puri
Dr Naveen Puri
Associate Clinical Director, and Lead Medical Appraiser, Bupa Global & UK

    • Hepatitis. Encyclopaedia Britannica. www.britannica.com, last updated 7 March 2022
    • Overview of acute viral hepatitis. MSD Manual. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision December 2020
    • Assessment of jaundice. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed 12 March 2022
    • Hepatitis A. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised May 2021
    • Hepatitis B. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised February 2022
    • Hepatitis C. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised April 2020
    • Hepatitis A. NHS. www.nhs.uk, last reviewed 11 March 2019
    • Hepatitis A. Terrence Higgins Trust. www.tht.org.uk, last reviewed 9 December 2021
    • Sex activities and risk. NHS. www.nhs.uk, last reviewed 17 November 2018
    • Hepatitis C. Terrence Higgins Trust. www.tht.org.uk, last reviewed 27 January 2021
    • STIs overview. Sexwise. www.sexwise.org.uk, last updated March 2021

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