More than 300 million people worldwide are living with hepatitis B and hepatitis C – two of the more common types of hepatitis reported in the United States. Each year, approximately  1.34 million people  across the globe die from viral hepatitis, a disease which the World Health Organization says is highly preventable with vaccinations.

Viral hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver caused by a virus, according to WHO.  Dr. Jonathan Lamphier  of  Novant Health Gastroenterology Brunswick  in Supply, North Carolina, provided insight about viral hepatitis and tips for how it may be prevented.

What are the different types of hepatitis?

There are five types of hepatitis viruses, each distinctly categorized by varying causes.

“Viral hepatitis may present itself differently depending on whether it is chronic in nature or whether it is acute and can be cleared by the body in a short period of time,” Lamphier said. “I find patients are often unaware of what causes each type.”

According to WHO , hepatitis B and C are primarily spread through blood-to-blood contact while hepatitis A and E are typically transmitted through poor sanitation or contaminated water or food. Hepatitis D is spread through contact with infected blood and is only found in people already infected with hepatitis B.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • Hepatitis A  is spread when food or drinking water is contaminated by the feces of an infected person during handling. Raw shellfish that is sourced from water contaminated by sewage can also carry the virus. Hepatitis A may lead to darker urine or yellowing of the eyes and skin, known as  jaundice , but it is typically an acute condition and usually clears within a matter of weeks with proper hydration and rest. There is a vaccination for hepatitis A.
  • Hepatitis B  is transmitted through contact with the blood or other body fluids such as saliva, semen and vaginal fluid of an infected person. Women can pass hepatitis B on to their newborns during childbirth. Hepatitis B may also be spread during intercourse or by sharing needles, toothbrushes, razors or nail scissors. A series of vaccinations can help prevent infection.
  • Hepatitis C  is also a blood-borne virus most often spread by sharing needles or from  the surfaces of other equipment used to inject drugs , such as spoons, pipes and even bank notes. According to the World Hepatitis Alliance, hepatitis C can survive on surfaces between 16 hours to four days. Though a rarity, it can also be transmitted through certain sexual practices and during childbirth. Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine available.
  • Hepatitis D  is spread through contact with infected blood but is only found in people who have already contracted hepatitis B. The hepatitis B vaccination is the first line of defense. There is  no vaccine  for Hepatitis D.
  • Hepatitis E  is more commonly found in developing countries and  not in the United States . It is transmitted much like hepatitis A, from food or water contaminated by the feces of an infected person. There is a vaccine for hepatitis E but it is not widely available. Hepatitis E typically clears on its own.

Who’s most at risk and what can you do to protect yourself?

For most Americans, Lamphier said getting tested and vaccinated for hepatitis B is critical, especially those who inject drugs, have multiple sex partners or work in certain environments like prisons or hospitals. He also warned about unsafe venues for body art that wield needles.

“Make sure any tattoo parlor or place that offers body piercings is licensed, as unlicensed facilities don’t always follow necessary sanitation procedures,” Lamphier said.

The CDC  recommends  that all baby boomers, or those born from 1945 through 1965, be tested for hepatitis C because baby boomers are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults. “This should be incorporated by primary care physicians into routine health maintenance screening,” Lamphier said.

Travelers to high-risk countries have also been warned to take certain precautions. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  recommends  that people get vaccinated for hepatitis A before traveling to some areas, particularly Mexico, Central America and South America.

“Vaccinations are widely available for two of the most common forms of viral hepatitis,” Lamphier said. “The onus lies with each of us to do our part to protect ourselves and our loved ones by getting vaccinated.”

Take this  quiz  to test your knowledge of hepatitis.