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Hepatitis is a disease that causes inflammation of the liver. It can be either acute (lasting less than six months) or chronic (lasting more than six months).
Several viruses are known to cause hepatitis. Common forms of viral hepatitis include:

  • Hepatitis A: Hepatitis A is a virus that causes liver disease. This form of hepatitis never leads to a chronic infection and usually has no complications. The liver usually heals from hepatitis A within two months. However, occasional deaths from hepatitis A have occurred due to massive liver infection. Hepatitis A can be prevented by vaccination.
  • Hepatitis B: This form of hepatitis causes liver damage. Most people recover from the virus within 6 months, but sometimes the virus will cause a lifelong, chronic infection, resulting in serious liver damage. Once infected, a person can spread the virus even if he or she does not feel sick. Hepatitis B can be prevented by vaccination.
  • Hepatitis C: One of the most common causes of liver disease in the U.S., Hepatitis C is the number one reason for liver transplant. At least 80% of patients with hepatitis C develop a chronic liver infection. Approximately 2.7 million people in the U.S are chronically infected with hepatitis C, according to the CDC. It often does not show any symptoms. No vaccine is yet available to prevent hepatitis C.

Viral hepatitis is often preventable. However, it is still considered a serious health risk because it can:

  • Destroy liver tissue.
  • Spread from person to person.
  • Weaken the body's immune system.
  • Cause the liver to fail.
  • Cause liver cancer (hepatitis B and C).
  • Cause death.

How Do You Get Hepatitis?

You are at a higher risk of developing hepatitis if you:

  • Share needles to take drugs.
  • Practice unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex.
  • Have many sex partners.
  • Drink a lot of alcohol.
  • Have poor nutrition.
  • Work in a hospital.
  • Work in a nursing home.
  • Receive long term kidney dialysis.
  • Travel to areas with poor sanitation.

How Does Someone Get or Spread Hepatitis?

The answer to that question depends on the form of hepatitis.

Hepatitis A

A person can get hepatitis A from eating food or drinking water carrying the virus. Infected food is usually a problem in developing nations where poor sanitation is common.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B may be transmitted by:

  • Having sex with an infected person.
  • Sharing dirty needles.
  • Being in direct contact with infected blood.
  • Getting needle stick injuries.
  • Mother to unborn child.
  • Being in contact with an infected person's body fluids.

Hepatitis C

A person can get hepatitis C from:

  • Sharing dirty needles.
  • Being in direct contact with infected blood.
  • Getting needle stick injuries.
  • Having sex with an infected person (less common).

Blood products are currently tested for hepatitis B and C, so it's unlikely that a person will get hepatitis from receiving blood products. However, blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992 may have not been tested for hepatitis C. If you received a transfusion of blood products before this date, you may want to get tested for hepatitis C.

Hepatitis and Pregnancy

An infected mother can give hepatitis B to her child during or after birth if the newborn is not treated. All pregnant women should be tested for hepatitis B. Infants born to mothers with hepatitis B need to receive treatment within 12 hours of birth. Hepatitis B can be completely eliminated by successful vaccination.

What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis?

The most common symptoms of hepatitis include:

  • Dark urine (Hepatitis A, B, C)
  • Stomach pain (Hepatitis A, B, C)
  • Yellow skin or eye whites (Hepatitis A, B, C)
  • Pale or clay-colored stool (Hepatitis A, B, C)
  • Low-grade fever (Hepatitis A, B, C)
  • Loss of appetite (Hepatitis A, B, C)
  • Fatigue (Hepatitis A, B, C)
  • Feeling sick to the stomach (Hepatitis A, B, C)
  • Lack of nutrition (Hepatitis A, B, C)
  • Aching joints (Hepatitis B)

If you have any, or a combination of these symptoms, contact your health care provider as soon as possible.

How Is Hepatitis Diagnosed?

There are numerous blood tests that can diagnose viral hepatitis.

Can Hepatitis Be Treated?

There are no treatments that will cure hepatitis A, other than to monitor carefully the liver's function.

Hepatitis B, where chronic, can often be treated successfully. Interferon, lamivudine, adefovir and entecavir are all used to treat hepatitis B.

For hepatitis C, some people (approximately 40-80%) respond to a combination of the medications peginterferon alpha and ribavirin. However, there are many side effects to this treatment including severe anemia (low red blood cells) and birth defects.

What Is the Prognosis for Hepatitis?

Most people recover from acute hepatitis even though it may take several months for the liver to heal. To help improve your health and to help speed up recovery:

  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Practice good nutrition.
  • If you feel sick, rest.
  • Take any medicine prescribed for you. Check with your doctor before taking any new medications, including over-the-counter drugs, herbs and dietary supplements
From WebMD, Reviewed by The Cleveland Clinic Department of Gastroenterology (2005).
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