How are hepatitis B and C spread?
Protecting my family and friends?
What’s safe and what’s not?
BY MOLLY COLIN
You probably wondered about this when you first found out you had hepatitis. You may have wondered what it means to people close to you. Is your family at risk through their daily contact with you? Can you still make love without infecting someone? These are important questions.
- 1 Shared routes of infection
- 2 Some safe activities for people with hepatitis B or C
- 3 Learning about how these diseases are spread can help you protect your family and friends, and protect yourself against other infections.
- 4 Important differences
- 5 Quick protection against hepatitis B
- 6 Protecting others
- 7 Know what’s safe
- 8 QUIZ
- 9 ACTION STEPS
Hepatitis B and hepatitis C are spread in many of the same ways. They are both blood-borne diseases; that is, they are carried in an infected person’s blood. But that doesn’t mean that a blood transfusion from an infected person is the only way to get these disease. Up until 1990, this was one of the main ways that hepatitis C was spread, but at that time, new blood tests were introduced that have almost completely stopped the spread of hepatitis through transfusions. Blood is still the main way these viruses are spread, and, as we will learn later, they are also found in other body fluids.
Any blood, including blood from cuts, nosebleeds, or even menstrual blood, can carry the virus. Hepatitis B or hepatitis C may even be spread through sharing objects like to tooth-brush, a razor, earrings, or chewing gum, which may be able to carry enough virus-laden blood to pass on the infection.
Both viruses (but particularly hepatitis B) may also lurk on contaminated medical tools in places such as the dentist’s office, the doctor’s office, the hemodialysis center (a medical office where people with kidney failure receive a blood filtering treatment), or the operating room. This is one reason why medical professionals have adopted a series of steps called universal precautions, which include strict cleaning procedures for all tools, using disposable needles, and wearing gloves when coming into contact with patients. Still, you should inform all of your healthcare provides that you have hepatitis.
You can get hepatitis B or C if you share any kind of needles – those used for tattooing, body piercing, acupuncture, shots for health reasons, or illegal drugs. Sharing needles for illegal drug use is now one of the most common means of spreading both hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Straws for inhaling cocaine appears to be another major means of infection – small amounts of blood from inside the nose stick to the straw, which is then passed to the next person. This is now a common way that hepatitis is spread.
Sex and transmission from mother-to-baby are two other ways that hepatitis B and C can be spread, but there are important differences between the two viruses in these cases, as we will discuss in the next section.
How you acquired hepatitis B or hepatitis C, whether it was through a transfusion, drug use, or some factor you can’t even remember, does not make a difference in how either disease will affect you. But learning about how these diseases are spread can help you protect your family and friends, and protect yourself against other infections.
Having hepatitis does not protect you against other infections, and because there are at least six hepatitis viruses (hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, and G) it is possible to become infected with different types of hepatitis at different times, or even at the same time.
Some safe activities for people with hepatitis B or C
– Shaking hands
– Preparing food
– Swimming in a pool
Learning about how these diseases are spread can help you protect your family and friends, and protect yourself against other infections.
Hepatitis B is much more infectious than hepatitis C, perhaps because the blood usually carries more of the B viruses than the C viruses. Hepatitis C is most commonly passed by blood-to-blood routes (such as a blood transfusion or needle sharing). Hepatitis B appears to be more easily spread than hepatitis C through body fluids other than blood, such as semen, vaginal secretions, and saliva. (While it is probably rare, transmission through saliva is thought to be possible for hepatitis B.) It has not been proven that you can get hepatitis B from exposure to tears, sweat, breast milk, urine, or faeces, but the virus has been found in low concentrations in these body fluids.
The virus can enter your body through a break in the skin. The lining of the nose, mouth, eye, vagina, and anus are areas where the skin is likely to get tiny breaks or small sores that you may not even see, and the virus can sneak in through these breaks.
As mentioned earlier, unprotected sex (whether it is heterosexual or homosexual) is now one of the most common ways that hepatitis B is spread, particularly among people who have sex with more than one partner. Sexual contact is a potential risk factor for the spread of hepatitis C. Most people in a long term relationship with only one partner seem to be at low risk of spreading or catching hepatitis C through sex. Having sex with many partners, however, seems to increase the risk of catching hepatitis C. It also appears that women are much more likely to become infected with hepatitis C from their male partners than the other way around.
Another common route of the spread of hepatitis B is from a pregnant woman to her baby. If you have hepatitis B, and are pregnant or considering having a baby, talk to your doctor to find out more about your baby’s particular risk, and how to protect your baby. At birth, babies born to mothers with hepatitis B should receive a shot of hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG), and the first in a series of three hepatitis B vaccines. This will greatly reduce the baby’s chances of catching the virus.
Hepatitis C, on the other hand, is only rarely passed from a pregnant woman to her baby. If you have hepatitis C, and are HIV – positive and pregnant, there seems to be a greater risk that your baby can catch hepatitis C from you.
Breastfeeding is usually safe for mothers with hepatitis C. Mothers with hepatitis B, however, may be able to pass the virus on through breastfeeding. Every pregnant woman with hepatitis should talk to her doctor about how best to protect her baby from this virus.
Quick protection against hepatitis B
If someone is exposed to hepatitis B, he or she should call their doctor immediately. anyone who is exposed to this virus must receive an injection of HBIG, which provides temporary help in protecting the person from the virus, followed by the series of 3 vaccinations against hepatitis B.
For the best protective effect, the HBIG should be given within 24 hours after coming into contact with the virus. The vaccine involves 2 injections given a month apart, followed by a third injection 6 months after the first one. The hepatitis B vaccine is useful only for people who do not already have a chronic hepatitis B infection.
Most people find out they have hepatitis C a long time after they were exposed to the virus. There is no vaccine or immune globulin currently available for hepatitis C.
It’s natural to be worried about passing the virus on to family, friends, and coworkers. Here are some things you can do to protect other people: – Protect others by covering open wounds and by not sharing razors, toothbrushes, nail brushes, manicure tools, or anything else that can hold tiny amounts of blood. Be careful of menstrual blood, too. Clean bloodstains with a disinfectant. Some experts even advise not sharing hairbrushes or combs because of possible scabs on the scalp.
– Use latex condoms when you have sex. If you have hepatitis C and are involved in a long-term relationship, there is only a small risk of passing the disease to your partner. But it is still important to talk this out with your partner and decide together if condoms are needed.
– Avoid donating blood if you have been exposed to any hepatitis virus.
– Inform healthcare workers – doctors, dentists, nurses, laboratory technicians, and others who may draw blood, perform surgical procedures, or handle sharp instruments – of your condition so that proper precautions can be taken, or they can be careful. Make sure healthcare workers follow infection control procedures, such as heat-sterilizing instruments and wearing gloves and masks.
Know what’s safe
You cannot get hepatitis through kissing on the cheek, shaking hands, or hugging. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C cannot be spread by food or water, so you don’t need to worry about handling food.
Knowing what’s safe and what isn’t safe will help you along your path to living with the virus. Many of these safety precautions will become routine, and they should not seem strange to anyone. It makes perfect sense to practice health safety steps these days, when there are so many contagious diseases, including HIV, the common cold, herpes, and the flu, being passed around.
Now that you have learned about taking care of others and preventing them from getting the disease, let’s get back to taking care of you. In the next chapter you’ll learn about how your hepatitis is diagnosed.
Q. Can needles that have been used on or by other people carry hepatitis viruses B and C?
A. Yes. Needle sharing for illegal drug use is now one of the most common ways of spreading both these diseases. And both hepatitis B and hepatitis C can also be spread through contaminated needles used in tattooing, body piercing, acupuncture, and for injections of drugs used for health purposes.
Q. Can hepatitis B and hepatitis C be spread through the sharing of personal care items?
A. Yes. Any object, such as a razor, an earring, or a toothbrush may carry enough virus laden blood to infect another person.
Q. Which is more contagious, hepatitis B or C?
A. Hepatitis B is more contagious than hepatitis C.
Q. If you are pregnant and you have hepatitis B what does your baby need right after birth? A. An injection of HBIG (a special type of immune globulin), and the first in a series of three hepatitis B vaccines.
o Be safe. Use condoms if you have hepatitis B, or if you have hepatitis C and multiple sex partners. Don’t share needles or straws for cocaine with anyone. Disinfect and properly dispose of anything that carries even traces of your blood.
o Tell healthcare providers about your illness so they can protect themselves and other patients.
o If you have hepatitis B suggest that anyone who comes in close contact with you, particularly a sex partner, be vaccinated against the disease.
o If you are pregnant and have hepatitis, talk to your doctor about your baby’s risk of getting the disease and how to protect your baby, particularly from hepatitis B.