Hepatitis

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr Adrian Bonsall on | Certified by The Information Standard

Hepatitis is the medical term for inflammation of the liver. It has a number of causes, leading to different types of hepatitis, which are treated and managed differently. This leaflet signposts to leaflets with more information on some of the more common types of hepatitis.

'Hepatitis' is a medical term describing inflammation of the liver. There are a number of types and a number of causes of hepatitis. The type and cause will affect how serious an illness it is. In some cases it can be very mild, in others a more serious condition.

What is the liver and what does it do?

Diagram showing the liver

liver

The liver is a large organ in the upper right part of the tummy (abdomen). You cannot normally feel it as it is tucked under your ribs. It has many functions which include:

  • Storing fuel for the body (glycogen) which is made from sugars. When required, glycogen is broken down into glucose which is released into the bloodstream.
  • Helping to process fats and proteins from digested food.
  • Making bile which passes from the liver to the gut down the bile duct. Bile breaks down the fats in food so that they can be absorbed from the bowel.
  • Making proteins that are essential for blood to clot (clotting factors).
  • Processing many medicines which you may take.
  • Helping to remove or process alcohol, poisons and toxins from the body.

Hepatitis is divided into:

  • Acute - a short-lasting illness.
  • Chronic - when the illness has lasted for longer: six months or more.

Acute hepatitis can sometimes go on to become chronic. Chronic hepatitis can cause liver damage in the long term.

Each cause of hepatitis results in a rather different illness, which is obtained differently, behaves differently and is treated differently. The main causes are:

Viral hepatitis

The most common cause of hepatitis is infection with a virus. There are five different viruses which can cause five different types of hepatitis. They are:

  • Hepatitis A. This tends to be a short-term (acute) illness. It is usually spread by eating or drinking something contaminated with the hepatitis A virus. It is more common in developing countries. See the separate leaflet Hepatitis A for more information.
  • Hepatitis B. This is acquired through blood or body fluids. So it can be passed on from another person during sex, or by use of contaminated needles (for example, by drug users). It can also be passed from a pregnant mother to her baby. Although it can be an acute illness, in some cases it can develop into a chronic illness and cause liver damage. See the separate leaflet Hepatitis B for more information.
  • Hepatitis C. This is also spread through blood or body fluids, similarly to hepatitis B. This is more likely to become a chronic illness and cause long-term liver problems. It is the most common type of viral hepatitis in the UK. See the separate leaflet Hepatitis C for more information.
  • Hepatitis D. This is spread in the same way as hepatitis B and hepatitis C. However, it can only affect people who also have been infected with hepatitis B.
  • Hepatitis E. This is a similar illness to hepatitis A. It is also spread through contaminated food and drink, and also usually causes a short-term illness, from which people usually recover fully.
  • Other viruses can cause inflammation of the liver as part of the general illness they cause. However, the hepatitis is not the main part of the illness (for example the Epstein-Barr virus which causes glandular fever). Germs other than viruses, such as certain bacteria and parasites, can also cause hepatitis.

Hepatitis caused by toxins

  • The most common cause is excessive alcohol over a prolonged time. Alcoholic hepatitis is reversible if alcohol is reduced, but can go on to cause longer-term liver damage (cirrhosis).
  • Medication - some medicines can cause liver inflammation as a side-effect. (For example, paracetamol, statin medicines which lower cholesterol levels, and certain antibiotics.)
  • Haemochromatosis - an unusual condition where the body stores too much iron, can cause hepatitis.
  • Wilson's disease - an unusual condition where liver damage is caused by copper excess in the body.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

This is a range of conditions caused by a build-up of fat in the liver. Hepatitis is one effect this can have. See the separate leaflet called Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.

Autoimmune hepatitis

This tends to be a chronic - longer-lasting - type of hepatitis. The body's own immune system is thought to attack and damage the liver. Treatment is with medication to suppress this excessive immune response. See the separate leaflet called Autoimmune Hepatitis for more information.

For the specifics, go to the leaflets of the individual types of hepatitis linked above. The illness varies depending on the type of hepatitis, and may be mild or very severe. Symptoms will also depend on whether the illness is acute or chronic. Common symptoms include:

  • A yellow tinge to the skin or eyes (jaundice).
  • Feeling tired.
  • Muscle or joint aches and pains.
  • Tummy (abdominal pain).
  • A poor appetite.
  • Feeling sick (nausea).
  • Darker-coloured urine and pale-coloured stools.
  • Headache.
  • A high temperature (fever).

This depends on the type of hepatitis - see the individual leaflets.

This also depends on the individual type. Some viral types of hepatitis can be prevented with a vaccination. Alcoholic hepatitis can be prevented by not drinking alcohol. Refer to the individual leaflets linked above for further detail.

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