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STIs

Hepatitis

Find out about the symptoms, causes and treatment of hepatitis. 

Hepatitis is the medical name for inflammation of the liver. There are different causes of hepatitis, some of which are viruses and can be transmitted through sexual activity, others can be caused by alcohol.

Signs and symptoms of hepatitis

In many cases, hepatitis can have no symptoms. However, early signs can include flu-like symptoms such as:

  • muscle and joint pain
  • headaches
  • feeling sick
  • temperature
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

Some types of hepatitis can pass without affecting the liver, but others can become chronic and last for many years, or cause cirrhosis (scarring of the liver). Symptoms of chronic hepatitis include:

  • feeling tired all the time
  • generally feeling unwell
  • jaundice
  • depression
  • some types of hepatitis (such as hepatitis A) can also cause itching

The causes and spread of hepatitis

There are several different types of hepatitis, but only hepatitis A and B can be transmitted through unprotected sexual activity.

Hepatitis A

Where you can get hepatitis A

It is uncommon in the UK but widespread in parts of the world where sanitation is poor.

Cause

Through unprotected anal sex or oral sex.

Treatment

There is no treatment for hepatitis A, although symptoms can be managed by getting plenty of rest and taking painkillers to relieve discomfort.

How long it lasts

The infection usually passes within three months.

Vaccination

A hepatitis A vaccination is recommended if you are travelling to countries where hepatitis A is common.

Hepatitis B

Where you can get hepatitis B

It’s not common in the UK, but your risk is increased if your partner is from – or if you travel to – parts of the world where it is relatively common, such as sub-Saharan Africa, east and southeast Asia, the Middle East and southern and eastern Europe.

Cause

Coming into contact with the blood or bodily fluids (such as semen and vaginal fluids) of an infected person. It can be passed on during unprotected vaginal, anal and oral sex, pregnancy, and sharing needles to inject drugs.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for hepatitis B, however in some people it can lead to chronic hepatitis B which, although treatable with antiviral medication, is a long-term condition which can cause cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver.

How long it lasts

Most cases pass within a couple of months, but sometimes it can become a long term condition.

Vaccination

A vaccination is available for travellers or people in high-risk groups such as drug users and healthcare workers.

Hepatitis C

Where you can get hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is the most common type of viral hepatitis in the UK and around 215,000 people in the UK have chronic hepatitis C.

Cause

Although the virus can be spread via saliva, vaginal fluids and semen this is rare and it is most commonly spread through blood to blood contact (9/10 cases are spread through sharing needles to inject drugs). Find out more about drugs.

Treatment

Antiviral medication can be prescribed to relieve symptoms, which may also sometimes cure the infection.

How long it lasts

Some people recover from the infection, however the majority will have the virus for many years (this is known as chronic hepatitis C).

Vaccination

There is no vaccination for hepatitis C.

Other types of hepatitis include hepatitis D, hepatitis E, alcoholic hepatitis and autoimmune hepatitis.

Testing for hepatitis

Hepatitis is tested by a blood test, designed to look for evidence that your immune system is trying to fight the virus. Testing can also include a check of your liver function, an ultrasound scan, or a liver biopsy (where a small sample of liver tissue is taken for testing).

You can get tested for hepatitis at Brook services, young people’s services, GUM or sexual health clinics and GP surgeries. Find your nearest using our find a service tool.

If you test positive for hepatitis your doctor or nurse will advise you what to do and may prescribe antiviral medication. If you test positive for hepatitis C you will be referred to a specialist to discuss treatment options. It is thought that treatment is more effective the sooner it is started.

Some types of viral hepatitis will also require Public Health England to be notified. This is for types of hepatitis which are rarer in the UK such as hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Treatment of hepatitis

For many types of hepatitis there is no treatment, although symptoms can be managed with antiviral medication. It is also important to rest, stay hydrated and also rest your liver (such as not drinking any alcohol). You may also be advised to take painkillers such as ibuprofen. Some infections pass within a few months while others can become chronic.

If you test positive for hepatitis you should tell your current and any recent sexual partners (last six months) so that they can get tested too. Some clinics also offer partner notification which is a way to contact your partner using a ‘contact slip’. This process doesn’t mention your name and lets your partner/s know that they may have been exposed to an STI and advising them to get tested.

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