Public Health Essentials

A place to highlight the work of local public health as well as share health-related information and tips. Have an idea or question? Drop us a line at

View All Posts

May 19

What is hepatitis, and why should you get tested?

Posted on May 19, 2023 at 1:39 PM by Kari Bray

One of the top causes of liver damage, failure, and cancer is preventable or curable.

But many people don’t know they have it.

The “it” is viral hepatitis.

Viral hepatitis is a liver infection caused by one of multiple possible viruses. The most common are hepatitis (or hep) A, B, and C. The latter two are top causes of liver cancer in the U.S.

Hep A and B can both be prevented through vaccination. While there’s no vaccine to protect against hep C, it is curable with proper treatment. 

The challenge: Knowing you have viral hepatitis.

The CDC estimates that as many as two-thirds of people with hep B are unaware that they have it, as well as four of every 10 people with hep C. 

So, in honor of National Hepatitis Testing Day, let’s dive into some information people should know about testing, vaccination, treatment, and the most common hepatitis viruses. 


If you’re an adult and you’ve never been tested for hep B or hep C, or if you’re not sure if you’ve been tested, talk to your doctor.HAM2022NationalTestingDay

If you don’t have a regular medical provider, you can search for testing using the National Prevention Information Network’s online tool. Contact individual providers to confirm details such as location, hours, cost, and insurance coverage.

Getting tested is the only way to know if you have hep B or C. The testing will involve at least one blood draw to look for antibodies in your blood that indicate infection. Depending on the results, a follow-up blood test may be needed to confirm.

All adults should be tested at least once, and it’s especially important for people with risk factors. These could include people who use drugs (injected or otherwise), people living unsheltered, men who have sex with men, people with liver disease, or people currently or recently incarcerated.

If you are pregnant, you also should be tested during each pregnancy, even if you have been tested before. 

The Snohomish County Health Department’s Viral Hepatitis Outreach Program is working to bring hepatitis rates down through education and testing. Hep C is a focus of that work. A 2018 directive from the Governor of Washington calls for the elimination of hep C in the state by 2030. It’s a tall order, but an important one. 

Most acute – or new – hep C infections come with few symptoms and are unknown until someone is tested. 

For most people, untreated acute hep C turns into a lifelong chronic infection. Even then, many people still are not aware of it. Without treatment, these long-term infections can cause liver damage or failure, liver cancer, and cirrhosis, which is severe scarring of the liver.

That’s why testing is so crucial – the first step to curing this potentially devastating infection is knowing it’s there.

Vaccination and Treatment

Hep A, B, and C are different viruses that impact the liver. The first two – A and B – are preventable through vaccination.

Vaccination against hep A is recommended for all children when they are 1 year old. Babies should receive their first dose of hep B vaccine shortly after birth, with an additional dose in the first couple months of life and a booster around age 1.

CDC also recommends that all adults younger than 60 get vaccinated if they are not already, and that older adults (60+) get vaccinated if they have risk factors. These could include drug use or liver disease, or travel to areas of the world where risk of hepatitis is higher.

There is no vaccine for hep C, but most people can be cured in 8-12 weeks if they adhere to treatment as recommended by their doctor.

The first step is to get tested. If you do have hep C, your doctor can provide or refer you for treatment.

Treatment for hep C involves taking antiviral pills (also known as oral therapy) over the course of 2-3 months. A healthcare provider will help lay out the details based on a person’s test results and medical history.

People with hep C can help protect their liver and make treatment as effective as possible by: 

  • following up for regular monitoring of their liver’s health,
  • being vaccinated against hep A and B,
  • avoiding alcohol, which can accelerate liver damage,
  • getting tested for HIV, which increases the risk of cirrhosis,
  • and checking with their doctor before they take new prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, or supplements because some are damaging to the liver, as well.

A, B, C

Though they all are hepatitis viruses, hep A, B, and C are different from one another. 

Hepatitis A

While hep B and C tend to have few noticeable symptoms, people with hep A may feel sick for a few weeks or up to several months. Most people with hep A fully recover with minimal or no lasting damage. However, it can be a serious illness for people with health complications or existing liver disease. The virus is very contagious and lives in the poop or blood of someone who is infected. It can spread through eating contaminated food or drink, or through close personal contact. 

Hepatitis B

People may develop a lifelong infection and, over time, hep B can cause serious damage to the liver or liver cancer. There is no cure for hep B, but there are treatments that can delay or reduce the likelihood of cancer, and a vaccine to protect against the virus. Hep B spreads through bodily fluids such as blood or semen. Sexual contact or sharing needles and other drug-injection supplies can spread the virus, and a mom who is infected can give the virus to a baby at birth. 

Hepatitis C

More than half of people who get hep C develop long-term, chronic infection that can lead to liver disease and damage. Most people become infected with hep C by sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs. In 2021, more than 120 new cases were reported in Washington, about two-thirds with injection drug use as a risk factor and more than three-quarters with recent substance use (injection or otherwise). Hep C also can spread through sexual contact, other contaminated needles such as tattoos or piercings from unlicensed businesses or individuals, exposure in a healthcare setting not following appropriate infection prevention practices, or from a mom to baby at birth. Upward of 65,000 people in Washington are living with chronic hep C, according to a 2018 estimate. 

More information: