What is hepatitis?
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.
How does hepatitis affect the liver?
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.
What is hepatitis C?
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 C is usually spread through contact with blood products. People who use intravenous (IV) drugs can get hepatitis C 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. You are also at a higher risk if you got a blood transfusion or an organ transplant before 1992 (improvements in blood-screening technology were made in 1992).
Most people don't feel sick when they are first infected with hepatitis C. Instead, the virus stays in their liver and causes chronic liver inflammation.
Most people who are infected with hepatitis C don't experience any symptoms for years. However, hepatitis C is a chronic illness (which means it doesn't go away). If you have hepatitis C, you need to be watched carefully by a doctor because it can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer.
Hepatitis C: Part II. Prevention Counseling and Medical Evaluation by LA Moyer, R.N., EE Mast, M.D., M.P.H., and MJ Alter, Ph.D. (American Family Physician January 15, 1999, http://www.aafp.org/afp/990115ap/349.html)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff