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Last Updated: October 23, 2017

Hepatitis

Overview

In the general sense, the term “hepatitis” refers to inflammation (swelling) of the liver. The liver’s main job is to filter harmful chemicals and toxins from the blood. It also converts proteins and sugars into useful substances, stores them, and releases them when your body needs them. Inflammation can make it difficult for the liver to perform these functions, leading to illness.

Hepatitis has many causes, including poisoning, bacterial infection and autoimmune conditions (diseases in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells). However, it’s most commonly caused by a group of viruses that attack the liver and spread from person to person.

The hepatitis viruses can cause acute (sudden, short-term) illness that comes on quickly and lasts a few weeks or months. Some hepatitis viruses also cause chronic (long-term) hepatitis. The chronic form can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver failure and liver cancer.

Chronic hepatitis affects an estimated 4.4 million Americans. It is a leading cause of liver cancer and the number one reason for liver transplant in the country.

Many people with hepatitis have mild symptoms or none at all. They may go decades or a lifetime without a diagnosis, but can still spread the disease to others.

The most common forms of hepatitis are:

Less common forms include:

Causes and Risk Factors

The hepatitis viruses are transmitted from person to person in different ways:

Symptoms

Not all people with hepatitis experience symptoms, and many people with the disease don’t realize they’re infected. When present, symptoms include:

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you think you’ve been exposed to viral hepatitis, seek immediate medical attention. In some cases, your doctor may recommend vaccination or injections of immune globulin (a product containing antibodies made from human blood plasma) to prevent or halt infection.

Hepatitis is diagnosed based on your history and a blood test (or series of tests). Acute infection may last weeks to months. Some people with acute hepatitis need to be hospitalized, but many can remain at home.

Self-care for hepatitis includes:

In addition, some people with acute hepatitis C and chronic hepatitis benefit from medications.

People with chronic hepatitis should be monitored regularly by a healthcare provider who understands the condition. To protect the liver, patients should avoid alcohol and check with their provider before taking medications or supplements.

Prognoses (long-term outcomes) vary depending on the form of hepatitis:

Prevention

There are many steps you can take to reduce the risk of viral hepatitis:

To reduce the risk of non-viral hepatitis, avoid excessive alcohol consumption and consult with a healthcare professional about medications and supplements.

Sources

Related Topics

Authored by: Sarah Maurer