Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Many illnesses and conditions can cause inflammation of the liver, for example, drugs, alcohol, chemicals, and autoimmune diseases. Many viruses, for example, the virus causing mononucleosis and the cytomegalovirus can inflame the liver. When most doctors speak of viral hepatitis, they are using the definition that means hepatitis caused by a few specific viruses that primarily attack the liver and are responsible for about half of all human hepatitis. There are several hepatitis viruses; they have been named types A, B, C, D, E, F (not confirmed), and G. As our knowledge of hepatitis viruses grows, it is likely that this alphabetical list will become longer. The most common hepatitis viruses are types A, B, and C. Reference to the hepatitis viruses often occurs in an abbreviated form (for example, HAV, HBV, HCV represent hepatitis viruses A, B, and C, respectively.)
Who is at risk for viral hepatitis?
People who are most at risk for developing viral hepatitis are:
- Workers in the health care professions
- Asians and Pacific Islanders
- Sewage and water treatment workers
- People with multiple sexual partners
- Intravenous drug users
- HIV patients
- People with hemophilia who receive blood clotting factors
Blood transfusion, once a common means of spreading viral hepatitis, now is a rare cause of hepatitis. Viral hepatitis is generally thought to be as much as ten times more common among lower socioeconomic and poorly educated individuals. About one third of all cases of hepatitis come from an unknown or unidentifiable source. This means that a person does not have to be in a high risk group in order to be infected with a hepatitis virus. In countries with poor sanitation, food and water contamination with HAV increases risk. Some day care centers may become contaminated with HAV, so children at such centers are at a higher risk for HAV infections.
What are the Symptoms of Hepatitis?
The period of time between exposure to hepatitis and the onset of the illness is called the incubation period. The incubation period varies depending on the specific hepatitis virus. Hepatitis A virus has an incubation period of about 15 to 45 days; Hepatitis B virus from 45 to 160 days, and Hepatitis C virus from about 2 weeks to 6 months.
Many patients infected with HAV, HBV, and HCV have few or no symptoms of illness. For those who do develop symptoms of viral hepatitis, the most common are flu- like symptoms including:
- Loss of appetite
- Aching in the abdomen
Less common symptoms include:
- Dark urine
- Light-colored stools
- Jaundice (a yellow appearance to the skin and white portion of the eyes)
Diagnosis of Hepatitis
Diagnosis of acute viral hepatitis often is easy, but diagnosis of chronic hepatitis can be difficult. When a patient reports symptoms of fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, darkening of urine, and then develops jaundice, the diagnosis of acute viral hepatitis is likely and can be confirmed by blood tests. On the other hand, patients with chronic hepatitis due to HBV and HCV often have no symptoms or only mild nonspecific symptoms such as chronic fatigue. Typically, these patients do not have jaundice until the liver damage is far advanced. Therefore, these patients can remain undiagnosed for years to decades.
Treatment of Hepatitis
Treatment of acute viral hepatitis and chronic viral hepatitis are different. Treatment of acute viral hepatitis involves resting, relieving symptoms and maintaining adequate intake of fluids. It involves medications to eradicate the virus and taking measures to prevent further liver damage.