Hepatitis: What Is It, Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Updated in December 2023

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that is most times caused by a virus. Liver swelling can also happen from medication overdose, excessive alcohol intake or an auto-immune abnormality. 

The most frequent types of hepatitis are those caused by viruses, particularly hepatitis A, B and C. Symptoms of these hepatitis infections emerge within days of contact with the virus, and can include yellowing skin and eyes, headaches and general malaise. 

You should consult your doctor if you experience any symptoms of hepatitis so that diagnosis can be confirmed and appropriate treatment can be started. 

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Hepatitis symptoms

The symptoms of hepatitis can vary depending on the type of virus causing it, however the acute phase of infection usually presents with:

  • Headache and general malaise 
  • Pain and abdominal bloating 
  • Yellow skin and yellow sclera of the eye 
  • Dark urine, similar to Coke
  • Light-colored stools 
  • Nausea, vomiting and weight loss for no apparent cause 

Hepatitis B usually does not cause symptoms and evolves very gradually. Some people may present with symptoms, like fever, yellow skin and eyes, and general malaise. 95% of cases of hepatitis B can be cured, however some people may persist with a chronic hepatitis B.

Diagnosis of hepatitis should be confirmed through assessment of the patient and through blood tests. 

Main causes 

Hepatitis, or liver swelling, can be caused by coming into contact with a virus, bacteria or parasites that attack the liver. The most common causes of hepatitis are the Hepatitis A, B or C viruses, however there are also Hepatitis D, E and G viruses that can cause liver inflammation.  

Hepatitis can also happen with uncontrolled use or over dose of medication as well as excessive alcohol intake. Cases of hepatitis can also emerge in people with a history of lupus, Sjögren syndrome, cystic fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease, hemolytic anemia, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma or glomerulonephritis. 

How hepatitis is transmitted 

Hepatitis is transmitted through oral to fecal contact, or through contact with contaminated blood. Other common ways that hepatitis is transmitted include:  

  • Sharing needles
  • Unprotected sex 
  • Eating or drinking food or water that is contaminated by stool 
  • Coming in contact with a contaminated person’s urine or stool 

Although it is less common, some people may become infected through blood transfusions. There are also cases of babies becoming infected during delivery by infected mothers. 

How to prevent it 

To prevent hepatitis, you should be vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B viruses. You should also use a condom during any sexual activity, avoid sharing syringes and adopt thorough hygiene measures like washing your hands after using the toilet or before eating. In addition, you should be cautious of getting piercings or tattoos - salons should use sterilized or disposable equipment. 

Treatment options 

Treatment for hepatitis can be done conservatively with rest and adequate food and hydration. However, some cases require the use of prescription medication like interferon, lamivudine, adefovir, depivoxil and entecavir. 

Medications used to treat hepatitis can cause side effects like irritability, headache, insomnia, and fever and many patients stop treatment as a result. These side effects are most common when starting treatment, and they tend to fade away as you continue to use them. Some of the side-effects can also be treated with analgesics, antidepressants or anti-inflammatories.

Treatment can last for 6 to 11 months, depending on the type of hepatitis and the treatment response. While treating, you should opt for lighter, easy-to-digest meals. You are advised to follow-up with a registered dietitian to complement your medical treatment with an appropriate diet. 

Cure for hepatitis

Hepatitis is curable in most cases, however when left untreated or if the patient is non-compliant with instruction, this illness can lead to complications, including death. 

Serious cases of hepatitis may require hospital admission for management. Chronic hepatitis is associated with a higher risk for hepatic cirrhosis, which can lead to liver cancer. Other complications of hepatitis include glomerulonephritis due to the Hepatitis B virus, or cryoglobulinemia due to the Hepatitis C virus.