May 25, 2022
6 min. read

What Is Viral Hepatitis? Types, Symptoms, & Treatment

Medly

Good to Know:

  • There are five different types of viral hepatitis, each caused by a different virus and requiring its own type of treatment. 
  • Hepatitis A and E usually only cause short-term infections that your body can overcome.
  • Hepatitis B, C, and D can also cause acute infections, but might also cause chronic, or long-term infections as well. 
  • Most people do recover from hepatitis, though it may take the liver several months to heal.

Hepatitis is an infection that causes liver inflammation and damage. Most cases of hepatitis are caused by viral infections, though alcohol consumption, several health conditions, and some medications can also cause this condition. There are a number of different types of hepatitis: Hepatitis A and E usually only cause short-term infections that your body can overcome, while hepatitis B, C, and D can be treated but may also cause long-term infections. 

Most people do recover from hepatitis, though this can take several months. While you recover, it’s important to take preventative measures to protect yourself from further infection and to take care of yourself once you’ve been diagnosed. It’s also important to take the appropriate measures to avoid spreading the infection to anyone else. 

What is viral hepatitis? 

Hepatitis is a general term that refers to the inflammation of the liver. This condition can be caused by several viruses (viral hepatitis), chemicals, drugs, alcohol, certain genetic disorders or by an overactive immune system that mistakenly attacks the liver (autoimmune hepatitis). Depending on the course of your viral hepatitis, the condition can be acute, where it flares up suddenly and goes away, or chronic, where it becomes a long-term condition that causes subtle symptoms and progressive liver damage. 

What are the different types of viral hepatitis? 

There are five viruses that cause the different forms of viral hepatitis: hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. 

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A accounts for 20 to 25% of hepatitis cases in developed countries and is the result of infection with the hepatitis A virus (HAV). This type of hepatitis is an acute, short-term disease—it does not lead to a chronic infection and usually has no complications. In most cases, the liver will heal from hepatitis A within several months, though occasional deaths due to liver failure have occured. Hepatitis A can be prevented by vaccination. 

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). In the United States, around 900,000 people are living with the disease. While 95% of adults recover from hepatitis B and do not become chronically infected, it is possible to develop a lifelong, chronic infection. It is more likely to be chronic the earlier it is contracted, and it’s possible to carry and spread hepatitis B without feeling sick. Like hepatitis A, it can be prevented by vaccination. 

Fast Facts: In 2019, 296 million people worldwide are living with hepatitis B, and 1.5 million people were newly infected with chronic hepatitis B. 

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is among the most common bloodborne viral infections in the United States, as well as one of the most common causes of liver disease. In fact, approximately 2.4 million Americans are currently living with a chronic form of this infection. About 75% to 85% of patients with hepatitis C develop a chronic liver infection. It often does not show any symptoms, and no vaccine is yet available to prevent hepatitis C. 

Fast Facts: Hepatitis B and hepatitis C can result in chronic infections and disproportionately impact certain countries. 

Hepatitis D

Hepatitis D is a rare form of hepatitis that only occurs in people who are already infected with the hepatitis B virus. If you are vaccinated against hepatitis B, this will protect you from hepatitis D as well. 

Hepatitis E 

Hepatitis E is a waterborne disease that is spread by ingesting contaminated food or water. It’s fairly uncommon in the United States, and is mainly found in areas with poor sanitation. 

How does someone get or spread viral hepatitis? 

Some types of viral hepatitis are spread and contracted in different ways. 

Hepatitis A is spread through exposure to HAV in food or water. 

Hepatitis B and C are spread through contact with HBV and HCV, respectively, in body fluids, such as blood, vaginal secretions, or semen. 

Fast Facts: An infected mother has a high chance of giving hepatitis B to her child during or after birth, so all pregnant women should be tested for hepatitis B during pregnancy. 

Hepatitis D is spread through contact with blood containing HDV. 

Hepatitis E is spread through exposure to HEV in food or water. 

What are the signs and symptoms of viral hepatitis? 

The most common symptoms of hepatitis include: 

  • Dark urine
  • Stomach pain
  • Yellow skin or eye whites, called jaundice
  • Pale or clay-colored stool
  • Low-grade fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling sick to your stomach
  • Aching joints

If you have any combination of these signs and symptoms, seek treatment with a healthcare provider immediately. 

How is hepatitis diagnosed? 

To diagnose hepatitis, your healthcare provider will likely ask for or provide the following: 

  • A physical exam. During this exam, your provider may find a swollen, enlarged liver. 
  • Blood tests. These tests will check for liver enzymes that are elevated when the liver is damaged or infected, as well as blood tests to check for the viruses that cause hepatitis. 
  • Ultrasound. Your provider may want an ultrasound of your liver in order to detect any changes or abnormalities. 
  • Liver biopsy. A liver biopsy can confirm inflammation when other tests are inconclusive and to determine the exact degree of liver damage. 

How is hepatitis treated? 

Treatment for your hepatitis will depend on the type of hepatitis you have and whether or not your condition is chronic. 

Hepatitis A 

For hepatitis A, there are no treatments aside from carefully monitoring liver function. However, if you know early on that you have hepatitis A, you may be able to stop the infection with a dose of the hepatitis A vaccine or something called hepatitis A immune globulin.

Hepatitis B 

While there is no specific drug treatment for hepatitis B, if you have the condition you will need to be treated with antiviral medications, possibly for several months or years. You will also need continual monitoring by a medical professional to ensure you’re responding to treatment. 

Hepatitis C 

Both acute and chronic forms of hepatitis C can be treated with antiviral medications, usually in combination with each other. 

Hepatitis D 

To treat hepatitis D, your doctor may prescribe drugs with interferons and might also add medicines for hepatitis B

Hepatitis E 

Hepatitis E infections are usually acute and resolve on their own. Currently, no specific medical therapies are available for hepatitis E.  

How can I prevent hepatitis? 

You can reduce your risk of contracting hepatitis in a number of ways: 

  • Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B
  • Use a condom during sex
  • Don’t share needles to take drugs
  • Practice good personal hygiene such as thorough hand-washing with soap and water
  • Don’t use an infected person’s personal items
  • Take precautions when getting any tattoos or body piercings
  • Take precaution when traveling to areas of the world with poor sanitation, including getting vaccinated 
  • Drink bottled water when traveling

Fast Facts: There are no vaccines available for hepatitis C or D. While there is no vaccine available for hepatitis D specifically, the hepatitis B vaccine will protect you against hepatitis D as well. 

Though it may take several months for your liver to heal, it is possible to fully recover from hepatitis. During your recovery, doing things like avoiding alcohol, practicing good nutrition, resting, and staying in regular contact with your doctor can all help speed up your recovery. If you feel you are experiencing worsening symptoms, new symptoms, or questions, contact your healthcare provider right away. 

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