In this article:
- Knowing the basics
- Identifying the symptoms
- Determining the causes
- Understanding the diagnosis & treatment
Knowing the basics
What is viral hepatitis?
Hepatitis refers to an inflammation of liver cells and damage to the liver. There are different types and causes, but the symptoms can be similar.
The liver’s functions include detoxifying the blood, storing vitamins, and producing hormones. Hepatitis can disrupt these processes and create severe health problems.
There are many causes of hepatitis, the most common of which is due to a virus. According to experts, there are at least 5 viruses that can cause hepatitis. The three most common types are hepatitis A, B, and C. These types of hepatitis are all fatal.
Types of viral hepatitis
Viral hepatitis comes in many forms, of which the three most common are hepatitis A, B, and C. All three types can be acute – lasting for 6 months or less. Types B and C could be chronic.
Each type of viral hepatitis has different characteristics, although the symptoms may be similar.
Most cases of hepatitis A are often mild, and most people make a full recovery, after which they are immune and protected from the virus.
However, if it progresses, symptoms can be severe or life-threatening. At present, there are safe and effective vaccines that protect us against this virus.
Hepatitis B can be transmitted when a person:
- has unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person
- shares a needle with an infected person, often for illicit drug or steroid use
- has a tattoo created with unsterilised needles
- shares personal items, such as a toothbrush or razor with an infected person
- is born to an infected mother
The liver of a person infected with hepatitis B swells, resulting in severe damage.
Hepatitis B can become chronic, leading to complications that include scarring of the liver, or cirrhosis. It can also cause a type of cancer known as hepatocellular carcinoma.
Currently, there is no cure for hepatitis B. However, the incidence rate has dropped in countries where the vaccine, which has a 95 percent success rate against the infection, is made available.
Hepatitis C can lead to liver damage and swelling. According to experts, around 1 in 4 people with hepatitis C get cirrhosis, and this can lead to liver cancer.
Hepatitis C can also be transmitted from:
- Receiving organ transplants
- Sharing needles or syringes with a sick person
- Birth to an infected mother
Identifying the symptoms
What are the signs and symptoms of viral hepatitis?
Many people with viral hepatitis experience either mild or no symptoms. When symptoms appear, they can last from 15 to 180 days after infection – this applies to all types of hepatitis.
The initial phase of hepatitis is called the acute phase. Its symptoms are similar to mild flu, and may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Mild fever
- Muscle or joint aches
- Slight abdominal pain
- Weight loss
The acute phase is usually not dangerous, but for certain people, it can result in acute liver failure and death. It may also progress to a chronic infection, which is most likely accompanied with hepatitis B and C.
Chronic hepatitis can lead to progressive liver failure, resulting in jaundice, swelling of the lower extremities, confusion, and blood in the feces or vomit.
The following may occur:
- Dark urine
- Itchy skin
- Light-colored feces
- Yellowing of skin, whites of the eyes, and tongue
Most people would not realise that they have chronic hepatitis until liver failure occurs.
Determining the causes
What causes viral hepatitis?
The three most common types of viral hepatitis are all caused by viral infections.
Hepatitis A is caused by consuming food or water infected with the hepatitis A virus. The virus can also be transmitted through anal-oral contact during sex or by injecting drugs.
Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus and spreads through contact with infected blood, semen, and other bodily fluids. It can even be transmitted as a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
Hepatitis C mostly results from percutaneous infection, occurring when the virus gets under the skin. It is usually spread through injected narcotics and healthcare settings with poor infection control. However, hepatitis C virus cannot be contracted from contact with feces, while sexual transmission is less common than in other types.
Alcohol, medicines, obesity, and chemical exposure do not cause types A, B, or C, but they may aggravate inflammation and make the symptoms worse.
Understanding the diagnosis & treatment
The information provided herein is not a substitute for any medical advice. Therefore, ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is viral hepatitis diagnosed?
As the symptoms are similar across different types of hepatitis, the type and severity of hepatitis may only be diagnosed through laboratory tests.
The doctor will perform a physical examination and ask for your medical history to assess the cause of viral hepatitis.
If a patient has recently traveled abroad, they may have hepatitis A virus, while unprotected sex could warrant hepatitis B virus.
The following tests can confirm a diagnosis:
- Blood tests: These can detect if the body is producing antibodies to fight the disease, and can assess liver functions by monitoring the levels of certain liver proteins and enzymes.
- Nucleic acid tests: For hepatitis B and C, HBV DNA or HCV RNA tests can confirm the speed at which the virus is reproducing in the liver, and this will show how active the disease has become.
- A liver biopsy: This can measure the extent of liver damage and the possibility of cancer.
- Paracentesis: Abdominal fluid is extracted and tested to identify the cause of fluid accumulation.
- Elastography: This measures the liver’s stiffness by emitting sound waves.
- Surrogate markers: A type of blood test to assess the development of cirrhosis and fibrosis.
How is viral hepatitis treated?
Certain types of hepatitis can heal without intervention, but sometimes it can progress to scarring of the liver, or cirrhosis.
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A. The doctor will advise the patient to abstain from alcohol and drugs during the recovery. Most patients with hepatitis A will recover without intervention.
A person with hepatitis B needs to rest and abstain completely from alcohol. The doctor may prescribe an antiviral agent called interferon, or other antiviral suppressive therapies.
A person with hepatitis C will be prescribed with antiviral agents, with or without ribavirin.
Some directed antivirals and combination therapies are now available to treat the hepatitis C virus based on its subtype. These treatments target viral replication and prevent the virus from being able to reproduce. The cure rate of this method is very high when taken correctly.
What measures help to prevent viral hepatitis?
Hepatitis can be dangerous and difficult to treat, therefore people are advised to take precautions against possible infection.
Preventing hepatitis A
Hepatitis A is mostly spread through infected food and water.
The following steps can help avoid infection, especially when traveling.
- Wash hands thoroughly with soap after using the bathroom or before eating.
- Only consume food that have recently been cooked.
- Only drink commercially bottled water, or boiled water if you are unsure of local sanitation.
- Limit raw vegetables or pre-cut fruit if you are in a location with unreliable sanitation.
- Get a vaccine for hepatitis A virus before traveling to places where hepatitis may be endemic.
Preventing hepatitis B
To minimise the risk of transmission:
- Find out if your sex partner carries the disease.
- Practice safe sex by using condoms.
- Only use new, unused, and clean needles.
- Do not share toothbrushes, razors or manicure instruments.
- Take the HBV vaccination if you are at risk.
How to prevent hepatitis C
The following steps can help prevent HCV transmission:
- Do not share needles, toothbrushes or manicure equipment.
- Consume alcohol with moderation.
Hepatitis A and C are curable, but hepatitis B is preventable by vaccine. A cure for type B is still under development, therefore it is advised to take calculated precautions.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Review Date: October 31, 2019 | Last Modified: October 31, 2019