Viral Hepatitis Overview

Viral Hepatitis Overview

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that results in liver cell damage and destruction.

Illustration of the  anatomy of the biliary system
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Hepatitis can be categorized in two groups:

There are six main types of the hepatitis virus that have been identified:

How often does hepatitis occur?

According to the CDC, in the United States:

What is Acute Hepatitis?What is Chronic Hepatitis?
Acute hepatitis is quite common in the U.S.

Causes. Common causes of acute hepatitis may include:

  • Infection with a virus (viral hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E)
  • Overdose of drugs (such as acetaminophen)
  • Chemical exposure (such as drycleaning chemicals)

Symptoms. Acute hepatitis usually starts with flu-like symptoms. The following are the most common symptoms of acute hepatitis. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice (yellow color in the skin and/or eyes)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Tenderness in the right, upper abdomen (belly)
  • Sore muscles
  • Joint pain
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Itchy, red hives on skin

The symptoms of acute hepatitis may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

Diagnosis. In addition to a complete medical history and medical examination, diagnostic procedures for acute hepatitis may include the following:

  • Specific laboratory tests
  • Liver function tests

Treatment. Specific treatment for acute hepatitis will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment varies, depending on the type of acute hepatitis (viral versus non-viral). Severe, acute hepatitis may require hospitalization.

People who have had acute viral hepatitis may become chronic carriers of the disease. Proper precautions need to be taken to prevent the spread of the disease.

Some people do not recover fully from acute hepatitis and develop chronic hepatitis, as the liver continues to sustain more damage and inflammation. Hepatitis is considered chronic if symptoms persist longer than 6 months. Chronic hepatitis can last years.

Types of chronic hepatitis:

  • Alcohol-induced chronic hepatitis. This type is characterized by continued damage throughout the liver from heavy alcohol consumption.
  • Chronic active hepatitis. An aggressive inflammation and destruction of liver cells, which usually leads to cirrhosis.
  • Chronic persistent hepatitis. A milder inflammation of the liver, which usually does not lead to cirrhosis.

Causes. Certain viruses and drugs may cause chronic hepatitis in some people, but not in others. Some common causes include: 

  • Viral hepatitis
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Autoimmune disorder (when the body attacks its own tissues)
  • Reaction to certain medications
  • Metabolic disorders (such as hemochromatosis or Wilson's Disease)

Symptoms. Symptoms of chronic hepatitis are usually mild. Although the liver damage continues, its progression is usually slow. The following are the most common symptoms of chronic hepatitis. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Some people may experience no symptoms, while others may experience:

  • Feeling ill
  • Poor appetite
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Low fever
  • Upper abdominal (belly) pain
  • Jaundice
  • Symptoms of chronic liver disease (such as enlarged spleen, spider-like blood vessels in the skin, and fluid retention)

The symptoms of chronic hepatitis may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

Diagnosis. In addition to a complete medical history and medical examination, diagnostic procedures for chronic hepatitis may include:

  • Specific laboratory tests
  • Liver function tests
  • Liver biopsy (to determine severity of inflammation, scarring, cirrhosis, and underlying cause)

Treatment. Specific treatment for chronic hepatitis will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Cause of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

The goal of treatment is to stop damage to the liver and ease symptoms. Treatment may include:

  • Antiviral agent. When caused by hepatitis B or C, inflammation of the liver may be stopped with the antiviral agent called interferon-alpha.
  • Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids may be used to treat chronic liver disease caused by an autoimmune disorder. Inflammation is suppressed, but scarring of the liver may continue.
  • Discontinuation of certain drugs. When chronic hepatitis is caused by certain drugs, discontinuing those drugs usually clears up any symptoms.

Preventing the spread of viral hepatitis

Proper hygiene is the key to preventing the spread of many diseases, including hepatitis. Other preventive measures include the following:

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