More than four million Americans live with chronic hepatitis, and most don’t even know they’re infected by the virus. Hepatitis is a viral infection that causes swelling and inflammation of the liver. There are five types of hepatitis: A, B, C, D and E.

Hepatitis A and E are often caused by contaminated food or water. Hepatitis B, C and D are often causes by contact with fluids of an infected person. Hepatitis B and C are the most common cause of cirrhosis and cancer.

Hepatitis Symptoms

Hepatitis may occur and get better, referred to as acute hepatitis, or it may become a long-term disease, referred to as chronic hepatitis. Acute infections differ from the chronic virus in that they may occur with little to no symptoms.

Hepatitis can cause damage to the liver and liver failure or liver cancer. The severity of the infections depend on several factors, including what illnesses a person has as well as the cause of the liver damage. For example, hepatitis A, generally, is a short-term infection and does not cause severe liver problems.

General symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fluid in the abdomen
  • Dark urine
  • Pale stool
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever
  • Itching
  • Jaundice, which is the yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

Symptoms of hepatitis B and C do not always appear immediately when a person is first infected, but he or she can develop liver failure or cancer later.

Hepatitis Causes

Hepatitis can be caused by:

  • Immune cells in the body attacking the liver, which causes autoimmune hepatitis
  • Viruses, bacteria and parasites
  • Liver damage from alcohol or poisonous mushrooms
  • Other poisons
  • Certain medication, such as acetaminophen

Liver disease can be caused by inherited disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, as well as diseases, such as Wilson’s disease.

Hepatitis Treatment

Symptoms are not immediately apparent in many cases of hepatitis infections, especially acute hepatitis. The following signs and tests can detect an infection:

  • An ultrasound
  • Autoimmune blood markers
  • Liver tests and biopsy
  • Paracentesis (if fluid is found in the abdomen)

Treatment depends on the cause of the infection and of the liver disease. For example, treatment for acute hepatitis infections attempts to maintain comfort and to provide adequate liquids to replace lost nutrition and prevent dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea. Chronic hepatitis can be treated with drugs, including interferon and antivirals. However, if hepatitis progresses to liver disease and cancer, transplant might be the only option.

The best treatment for hepatitis infections will be determined with a doctor’s input.

Acute hepatitis infections are considered self-limited infections, which mean the body will destroy the virus with proper rest and time to let the body fight the virus. Additional non-medical treatments include eating healthy foods and avoiding alcohol. However, to treat chronic hepatitis, alternative treatments are not always the best option.

Hepatitis Prevention

Acute hepatitis prevention, such as hepatitis A and E, can occur through improved sanitary conditions as well as improving food safety and immunizations.

Vaccinations against hepatitis A and B should be a part of prevention and control of the spread of the virus.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccination for hepatitis C. Infection can be reduced by avoiding the use of unclean needles and the use of shared injection equipment, such as for illegal drug use. Avoiding unprotected sex will also reduce the chance of infection.

Hepatitis Resources

  • World Health Organization
  • CDC