Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by a viral infection or by drinking too much alcohol. The hepatitis virus can cause acute and chronic infection and inflammation of the liver that can then lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. There are several different strains of hepatitis; the five main ones being Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Hepatitis D and Hepatitis E.
Hepatitis A is usually caught by consuming food and drink contaminated with the faeces of an infected person and is particularly common in countries where sanitation is poor. The infection usually passes within a few months, but it can be severe and even life-threatening. There is no specific treatment for Hepatitis A, other than the relief of symptoms such as pain, nausea and itching.
Vaccination against hepatitis A is recommended if you’re travelling to an area where the virus is common, such as the Indian subcontinent, Africa, Central and South America, the Far East and Eastern Europe.
Hepatitis B is a common infection worldwide and is spread through the blood of an infected person; usually from infected pregnant women to their babies, or through child-to-child contact. In some cases, it can be spread through unprotected sex and injecting drugs.
Most adults infected with hepatitis B fully recover from the infection within a couple of months.
However, many people who have been infected as children develop a long-term infection known as chronic hepatitis B, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Vaccination against hepatitis B is recommended for people in high-risk groups, such as healthcare workers, people who inject drugs, men who have sex with men, and people travelling to parts of the world where the infection is more common.
Antiviral medication can be used to treat it.
Hepatitis C is a common type of viral hepatitis in the UK and usually spreads through blood-to-blood contact with an infected person (i.e. through sharing needles used to inject drugs; poor healthcare practices and unsafe medical injections).
Hepatitis C often causes no clear symptoms or only flu-like symptoms; therefore many people are unaware they are infected. Approximately, one in four people will fight off the infection but in some cases, the virus will stay in the body for many years causing a condition called ‘chronic hepatitis C’ which can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.
Chronic hepatitis C can be treated with antiviral medications.
Hepatitis B and C together constitute a considerable burden of disease in the WHO European Region. Most people who are affected are unaware of their infection due to dormant symptoms and are at high risk of developing severe chronic liver disease and/or unknowingly transmitting the virus to others.
Hepatitis D is only affects people who are already infected with hepatitis B, as the virus that causes it needs the hepatitis B virus to be able to survive in the body. It is usually spread through blood-to-blood or sexual contact and is more widespread in other parts of Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
Long-term infection with hepatitis D and hepatitis B can increase your risk of developing serious problems, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
There is no vaccine specifically for hepatitis D, but the hepatitis B vaccine can help protect you from it.
Hepatitis E is usually caught by consuming food and drink contaminated with the faeces of an infected person. Hepatitis E is generally a mild and short-term infection that does not require any treatment, but it can become chronic in people who have a suppressed immune system (i.e. those who have had an organ transplant).
There is no vaccine for hepatitis E, but you can reduce your risk of getting the infection by practicing good food and water hygiene measures, especially when travelling to areas with poor sanitation.
Alcoholic hepatitis is caused by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over a long period of time.
Many people do not realise they have alcoholic hepatitis, because it does not usually cause any symptoms, although it can cause sudden jaundice and liver failure in some people.
Stopping drinking will usually allow your liver to recover. However, if you continue to drink alcohol excessively, there is a risk you could eventually develop cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer.
You can reduce your risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis by controlling how much you drink.
Autoimmune hepatitis is a rare cause of long-term form of hepatitis in which the immune system attacks and damages the liver, eventually resulting in the liver becoming so damaged that it stops working properly. It is not clear what causes autoimmune hepatitis or how to prevent it.
Treatment for autoimmune hepatitis involves the use of medicines that suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation.
Short-term (acute) hepatitis often has no noticeable symptoms, so you may not realise you have it. Symptoms of hepatitis include:
- muscle and joint pain
- a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
- feeling and being sick
- feeling unusually tired all the time
- a general sense of feeling unwell
- loss of appetite
- abdominal (tummy) pain
- dark urine
- pale, grey-coloured poo
- itchy skin
- yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
Long-term (chronic) hepatitis also may not have any obvious symptoms until the liver stops working properly (liver failure) and may only be picked up during a blood test. In the later stages it can cause jaundice, swelling in the legs, ankles and feet, confusion, and blood in your stools or vomit.
If you have any persistent or troublesome symptoms that you think could be caused by hepatitis, it is vital that you consult with your GP.
Efforts to fight viral hepatitis focus on raising awareness of the disease and preventing it from spreading further by promoting vaccination, safe sex and safe injecting practices.