Hepatitis is the general term for a liver inflammation or infection that may be caused by various viruses as well as toxins and medicinal products. Hepatitis B and C are the most common blood-borne liver infections.

Hepatitis B is a pandemic virus. It is transmitted by blood and most frequently through sexual contact. In rare cases, the virus can also be transmitted through contact with infected objects, as the virus can remain infectious for weeks in a dried drop of blood.

If the blood of an expectant mother has hepatitis B in the last trimester, the child may be positive for the disease when it is born. Ninety-five percent of newborns do not become ill immediately but at some later point. The breast milk of mothers also contains the virus, so nursing is only allowed if the child has been vaccinated.

The first symptoms of hepatitis B appear two to three weeks after becoming infected. They include fever, nausea, fatigue, headache, itching all over the body, yellow corneas, dark urine, light coloured stools and abdominal pain.

Around one-third of those infected experience nearly no symptoms. Ninety percent of patients improve after a course of varying length, and they have lifelong immunity. The other 10 percent suffer from chronic hepatitis B. A small percentage of those with chronic hepatitis B may develop cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. Hepatitis B can be prevented by vaccination.

Hepatitis C is transmitted by contact with the blood of an infected person. Transmission by sexual contact and other means is rare, making up five to ten percent of cases.

An infant may contract hepatitis C if the mother was infected in the last trimester of pregnancy. The disease does not necessarily declare itself immediately after birth, first symptoms may appear later as well. The infected mother is allowed to nurse, as the virus is not secreted in breast milk.

Hepatitis C has symptoms similar to hepatitis B, but in most cases they do not manifest as strongly or are non-existent. Fever is rarely seen in hepatitis C, and 10-20 percent of those infected have jaundice. Patients often seek medical attention for non-specific symptoms: fatigue, weakness, shooting pains on the right side of their rib cage. In more than half of cases, the infection becomes chronic and may lead to serious liver damage. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Note: those infected with hepatitis B and C are ineligible to be blood donors. Those with hepatitis A may give blood if at least a year has passed since recovery.