Acute Hepatitis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Updated in October 2023

Acute hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that can occur due to a viral infection, prolonged use of medication, excessive consumption of alcohol and changes to immunity. This inflammation appears suddenly and lasts for several weeks.

Despite its diverse causes, cases of acute hepatitis present very similarly. Symptoms include general malaise, headache, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and yellow skin or eyes. Generally the inflammation develops in benignly, and is cured within weeks to months. However, some cases can become worse and be life-threatening. 

Therefore, if you notice any symptoms of hepatitis, you should see your doctor for assessment. He or she may order blood tests to look at your liver function as well as an abdominal ultrasound. Treatment includes rest, hydration and medication depending on the underlying cause.

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Symptoms of acute hepatitis 

Although they can vary depending on the cause, the main symptoms of hepatitis are: 

  • Fatigue 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Fever
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • General malaise 
  • Headaches 
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 

After a few days of the first symptoms, some people may also notice a yellow tinge to their skin and eyes. This is known as jaundice. Jaundice can occur with or without skin itching, dark urine and white stool. In some cases, the inflammatory process associated with hepatitis can last for over 6 months, which marks it as a chronic hepatitis. 

Check out our online symptom checker to assess your risk for liver disease. 

When it is serious 

Although it is not common, acute hepatitis can become serious, especially if it is not detected right away or if it is left untreated. If the hepatitis worsens, it can limit liver and biliary duct function. This can increase your risk for bleeding, interfere with protein production, and compromise your immune system. 

Some people may also experience acute liver failure after being diagnosed with acute hepatitis. Liver failure should be caught early so that medical interventions can be initiated promptly.

Fulminant hepatitis

Fulminant hepatitis is a rare complication of acute hepatitis, It associated with liver failure that interferes with systemic metabolism. It is one of the most serious liver conditions, and leads to death in 70 to 90% of patients. Risk for death from this condition increases with age. 

The symptoms of fulminant hepatitis are similar to those of acute hepatitis. Many people present with dark urine, yellow eyes, sleep disturbances, hoarseness, mental confusion and slow thought processes. This condition also increases your risk for multiple organ syndrome. This is a life-threatening condition, and you should seek medical attention if you present with any of these symptoms. 

Common causes

Common causes of acute hepatitis include:

  • Infection with a hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E virus
  • Other infections, like cytomegalovirus, parvovirus, herpes or yellow fever 
  • Medication use, like certain antibiotics, antidepressants, statins, anticonvulsants, or high doses of acetaminophen 
  • Auto-immune diseases in which the body produces incompatible antibodies 
  • Changes to copper or iron metabolism 
  • Changes to circulation
  • Acute biliary obstruction
  • Chronic hepatitis flare-up 
  • Problems with fat metabolism 
  • Cancer
  • Toxicity from drugs, chemical products or certain teas 

In addition, there is also a condition known as transinfectious hepatitis that is triggered by infections that do not directly affect the liver, like septicemia. 

How it is diagnosed

To diagnose hepatitis, the doctor will first assess the patient and their symptoms. He or she will then order blood tests that look for injury to liver tissue or changes to liver function. Such testing can include ALT and AST levels, GGT levels, alkaline phosphate, bilirubin, albumin and several clotting tests. 

The doctor can also order imaging tests to visualize the liver, such as an ultrasound or CT scan. If the diagnosis is still unclear, a liver biopsy may be necessary. 

Treatment options

Treatment for acute hepatitis will depend on the underlying cause of inflammation. The doctor may recommend rest, increased fluid intake, a diet that is light, low in fat and alcohol-free. The doctor may also stop any medication that induced hepatitis.

In some cases, the doctor may prescribe medications to relieve symptoms or reduce liver inflammation, like steroids, immunosuppressants or antivirals.