Does hepatitis cause cancer?
- Yes, hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) can cause liver cancer and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (a type of blood cancer)
- But, hepatitis causes less than 1% of all cancers in the UK
- There are things you can do to protect yourself against hepatitis and cancer
What is hepatitis?
HBV and HCV are carried in the blood and can infect liver cells. Most HBV infections can be cleared by the immune system and don’t cause any major harm. But in some cases, the body can’t get rid of the HBV infection, leading to health problems. In over 3 out of 4 cases of HCV, the infection can’t be cleared and the person has it for the rest of their life.
How can hepatitis cause cancer?
The viruses can cause cancer by damaging the DNA inside cells. These are the instructions for how your cells divide and grow, so this can change how cells function. The virus can also cause inflammation in the liver, which interferes with how cells behave.
Exactly how hepatitis can cause cancer is not yet understood. It is likely that there are many ways the virus damages cells, and this damage can lead to cancer. And, it may be different for different types of hepatitis.
What cancers are caused by hepatitis?
In the UK, liver cancer risk is around 20 times higher in people with HBV and/or HCV infection. But, hepatitis viruses cause around 600 cases of cancer in the UK each year, which is less than 1% of all cancer cases.
There are other things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer, which are likely to have a bigger impact, such as stopping smoking, keeping a healthy weight and cutting down on alcohol.
You can get HBV and HCV through contact with the blood, or body fluids of someone else that has the virus.
Even though hepatitis is common globally, the number of people with it in the UK is low. Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of getting hepatitis. This includes people that work in healthcare, such as nurses, men who have sex with men, close family of someone known to have the virus, and people who inject drugs.
People have been infected by contaminated blood transfusions. But since 1991 all donated blood in the UK is tested so this is very unlikely to happen now.
To avoid infection with hepatitis viruses, avoid things that will mean you come into contact with someone's blood. This includes sharing needles, razors and toothbrushes. It’s also important to avoid getting tattoos or piercings, having medical or dental treatments, at a place which is unhygienic. And to use barrier protection, like a condom, when having sex.
A vaccine is available on the NHS, free of charge for new born babies and people at higher risk of HBV. Visit your GP or a sexual health clinic to ask if you could get the vaccine.
HBV vaccination is also recommended for people travelling to countries where HBV is common. Ask your GP or a travel clinic and pay to get vaccinated.
There is no vaccine available to protect from HCV at the moment.
International Agency for Research on Cancer. Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans: Biological Agents. Vol 100B (2012).
Brown KF, Rumgay H, Dunlop C, et al. The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. Br J Cancer (2018).
McDonald S a, Hutchinson SJ, Bird SM, et al. A record-linkage study of the development of hepatocellular carcinoma in persons with hepatitis C infection in Scotland. Br J Cancer. 99(5), 805-8 (2008)
National Health Service (NHS). Hepatitis. NHS Choices. www.nhs.uk/conditions/Hepatitis/ [Accessed May 2019]
National Health Service (NHS). Hepatitis B. NHS Choices. www.nhs.uk/conditions/hepatitis-b/ [Accessed May 2019]
National Health Service (NHS). Hepatitis C. NHS Choices. www.nhs.uk/conditions/Hepatitis-C/ [Accessed May 2019]