Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Inflammation causes soreness and swelling. Hepatitis can be caused by many things. Hepatitis is most commonly caused by one of the 5 hepatitis viruses (A, B, C, D or E). All types of hepatitis cause inflammation of the liver, which interferes with its ability to function. Lack of blood supply to the liver, poison, autoimmune disorders, excessive alcohol use, an injury to the liver and taking certain medicines can also cause hepatitis. Less commonly, viral infections such as mononucleosis or cytomegalovirus can cause hepatitis.
There are 2 main kinds of hepatitis, acute hepatitis (short-lived) and chronic hepatitis (lasting at least 6 months). If you have acute hepatitis, the liver might become inflamed very suddenly and you might have nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and body aches. Or you may not experience any symptoms. Most people get over the acute inflammation in a few days or a few weeks.
Sometimes, however, the inflammation doesn't go away. When the inflammation doesn't go away in 6 months, the person has chronic hepatitis.
The liver breaks down waste products in your blood. When the liver is inflamed, it doesn't do a good job of getting rid of waste products. One waste product in the blood, called bilirubin (say "billy-roo-bin"), begins to build up in the blood and tissues when the liver isn't working properly. The bilirubin makes the skin of a person who has hepatitis turn a yellow-orange color. This is called jaundice (say "john-dis"). Bilirubin and other waste products may also cause itching, nausea, fever and body aches.
There are 5 viruses that cause hepatitis. Each hepatitis virus is named with a letter of the alphabet: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, hepatitis D and hepatitis E. Hepatitis B is a serious liver infection that is usually spread through contact with blood and/or body fluids of someone who has the infection.
Symptoms of hepatitis B can include:
Symptoms of hepatitis B can range from mild to severe. If you have a mild case of hepatitis, you may not even realize that you have it. It may not cause symptoms or may only cause symptoms similar to the stomach flu.
You can get hepatitis B if you have unprotected sexual contact with an infected partner. People who use intravenous (IV) drugs can get hepatitis B when they share needles with someone who has the virus. Health care workers (such as nurses, lab technicians and doctors) can get these infections if they are accidentally stuck with a needle that was used on an infected patient. The infection can also be passed from a mother to her baby during childbirth. You are also more likely to get hepatitis B if you travel to areas of the world where hepatitis B is common.
Hepatitis B cannot be transmitted through casual contact. For example, you cannot get hepatitis B by hugging or shaking hands with someone who is infected.
Blood tests are used to diagnose hepatitis B. Blood tests can tell your doctor whether your liver is working properly, and they can also be used to monitor your condition during treatment.
Your doctor may want to look at your liver with an ultrasound exam or X-rays. A liver biopsy may also be needed. With a liver biopsy, a small piece of the liver is removed and looked at under a microscope. A liver biopsy can help your doctor diagnose your illness and see the condition of your liver directly.
If you have acute hepatitis B, your body may be able to fight the infection on its own, which means you might not need treatment. Your doctor will help you manage your symptoms and monitor your condition while your body works to clear the hepatitis B from your system.
If you have chronic hepatitis B, your family doctor will probably refer you to a gastroenterologist or other subspecialist that treats people who have chronic liver problems. There are a number of medical treatments available that are often successful. These include treatment with antiviral medicines.
Treatment may take a year or more, depending on the severity of the infection and the response to treatment.
In some people, chronic hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis occurs when the liver cells die and are replaced by scar tissue and fat. The damaged areas of the liver stop working and can't cleanse the body of wastes. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure and even liver cancer.
If you have hepatitis B, you are also susceptible to hepatitis D (also called delta virus). Hepatitis D can only develop in people who already have hepatitis B. It can make your symptoms of hepatitis B or liver disease worse. It is spread through contact with infected blood or other body fluids of people who have hepatitis D.
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is to have protected sex (use a condom) and to avoid sharing needles.
A vaccine is available to prevent hepatitis B. It is now routinely given in the first year of life to all newborn infants. It is safe and requires 3 shots over a 6-month period. This vaccine should be given to people who are at high risk for this illness, such as health care workers, all children, people who travel to areas where the infection is widespread, drug users and those who have multiple sex partners.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff