What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis refers to an inflammatory condition of the liver. It’s commonly caused by a viral infection, but there are other possible causes of hepatitis. These include autoimmune hepatitis and hepatitis that occurs as a secondary result of medications, drugs, toxins, and alcohol. Autoimmune hepatitis is a disease that occurs when your body makes antibodies against your liver tissue.
Types of viral hepatitis
Viral infections of the liver that are classified as hepatitis include hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E. A different virus is responsible for each type of virally transmitted hepatitis.
Hepatitis A is always an acute, short-term disease, while hepatitis B, C, and D are most likely to become ongoing and chronic. Hepatitis E is usually acute but can be particularly dangerous in pregnant women.
Hepatitis A is caused by an infection with the hepatitis A virus (HAV). This type of hepatitis is most commonly transmitted by consuming food or water contaminated by faeces from a person infected with hepatitis A.
Hepatitis B is transmitted through contact with infectious body fluids, such as blood, vaginal secretions, or semen, containing the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Injection drug use, having sex with an infected partner or sharing razors with an infected person increase your risk of getting hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C comes from the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hepatitis C is transmitted through direct contact with infected body fluids, typically through injection drug use and sexual contact. HCV is among the most common blood-borne viral infections.
Also called delta hepatitis, hepatitis D is a serious liver disease caused by the hepatitis D virus (HDV). HDV is contracted through direct contact with infected blood. Hepatitis D is a rare form of hepatitis that only occurs in conjunction with hepatitis B infection. The hepatitis D virus can’t multiply without the presence of hepatitis B.
Hepatitis E is a waterborne disease caused by the hepatitis E virus (HEV). Hepatitis E is mainly found in areas with poor sanitation and typically results from ingesting faecal matter that contaminates the water supply.
Symptoms of hepatitis
If you have infectious forms of hepatitis that are chronic, like hepatitis B and C, you may not have symptoms in the beginning. Symptoms may not occur until the damage affects liver function. Chronic hepatitis develops slowly, so these signs and symptoms may be too subtle to notice.
Signs and symptoms of acute hepatitis appear quickly;
- flu-like symptoms
- dark urine
- pale stool
- abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- yellow skin and eyes, which may be signs of jaundice
If hepatitis is suspected, the following tests can confirm a diagnosis:
Blood tests: These can detect whether the body is producing antibodies to fight the disease, and they can assess liver function tests by checking the levels of certain liver proteins and enzymes.
Nucleic acid tests: For hepatitis B and C, an HBV DNA or HCV RNA test can confirm the speed at which the virus is reproducing in the liver, and this will show how active the disease is.
A liver biopsy: This can measure the extent of liver damage and the possibility of cancer.
Paracentesis: Abdominal fluid is extracted and tested, to identify the cause of fluid accumulation.
Elastography: This measures the liver’s stiffness by emitting sound waves.
Surrogate markers: A type of blood test to assess the development of cirrhosis and fibrosis.
Treatment will depend on the diagnosis. Get your hepatitis tests to profile done with us.
Tips to prevent hepatitis
Practising good hygiene is one key way to avoid contracting hepatitis A and E. If you’re travelling to other countries, you should avoid:
- local water
- raw or undercooked shellfish and oysters
- raw fruit and vegetables
Hepatitis B, C, and D contracted through contaminated blood can be prevented by:
- not sharing drug needles
- not sharing razors
- not using someone else’s toothbrush
- not touching spilt blood
Hepatitis B and C can also be contracted through sexual intercourse and intimate sexual contact. Practising safe sex by using condoms and dental dams can help decrease the risk of infection.
The use of vaccines is an important key to preventing hepatitis. Vaccinations are available to prevent the development of hepatitis A and B. Experts are currently developing vaccines against hepatitis C. A vaccination for hepatitis E exists in China.
Complications of hepatitis
Chronic hepatitis B or C can often lead to more serious health problems. Because the virus affects the liver, people with chronic hepatitis B or C are at risk for:
- chronic liver disease
- liver cancer
When your liver stops functioning normally, liver failure can occur. Complications of liver failure include:
- bleeding disorders
- a buildup of fluid in your abdomen, known as ascites
- increased blood pressure in portal veins that enter your liver, known as portal hypertension
- kidney failure
- hepatic encephalopathy, which can involve fatigue, memory loss, and diminished mental abilities due to the buildup of toxins, like ammonia, that affect brain function
- hepatocellular carcinoma, which is a form of liver cancer
People with chronic hepatitis B and C are encouraged to avoid alcohol because it can accelerate liver disease and failure. Certain supplements and medications can also affect liver function. If you have chronic hepatitis B or C, check with your doctor before taking any new medications.
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