Hepatitis: The STD Rarely Spoken About

It's not the first disorder that comes to mind at the mention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). But some forms of hepatitis are STDs, too. Just as with gonorrhea or chlamydia, it's possible for an individual to pass on hepatitis during unprotected sexual intercourse.

Hepatitis A isn't in this category: the virus typically is spread through contaminated food and water, explains Ira Leviton, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Hepatitis A, which is very contagious, can be contracted by eating contaminated food. It's very contagious, and can be spread when an infected foodservice worker handles food and transmits the virus to others. Hepatitis A is the least serious form of hepatitis, and many people recover without incident.

Hepatitis B and C are more serious, however. Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and occurs if the bodily fluids of an infected person - like semen, vaginal secretions, blood or saliva - enter your body. It's often spread by sharing contaminated needles, as well as by unprotected intercourse. Hepatitis C, caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) very occasionally can be sexually transmitted, though it's usually spread through needles shared by people who are using illegal drugs. Sometimes, doctors just don't know how the virus spreads.

"In fact, we don't know how half the patients who have hepatitis C got the disease in the first place," Leviton says.

Still, if your sexual partner is a carrier of hepatitis B or C, you're more at risk for getting it, Leviton says. "A person could have had hepatitis in the past and not be symptomatic," he says. "There is no foolproof way to know if your partner had hepatitis unless you looked at the medical records."

All individuals who are sexually active should be aware that hepatitis can be transmitted by someone who is just a carrier and not have symptoms.

"There should be a discussion at your physical every year about STDs," says Dalilah Restrepo, MD, an infectious disease specialist at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.   

Fortunately, becoming infected with hepatitis B is much less common these days, according to Dr. Lawrence Stanberry, MD, chief of pediatrics at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Center.
"We have begun immunizing in infancy for hepatitis B, so if you are looking at the younger population, they already were immunized," he says.

Treatment Options

As for treatment, a variety of antiviral medications can be used for Hepatitis B and C. "But there are a lot of side effects," Leviton says. Among them are depression, fatigue and headaches.

If you've had Hepatitis B or C, you should make sure any sexual partners are aware of this. While latex condoms offer some protection, there's still a risk for spreading the HBV virus to your partner even if a new latex condom is worn every time you have sexual intercourse.