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Hepatitis

What Is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. The liver, in the right side of the belly, is an important organ that helps break down food and medicine, stores energy, and clears the blood of waste products.

The most common cause of hepatitis (heh-puh-TYE-tus) is a viral infection. The three most common hepatitis viruses are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. (Hepatitis viruses D and E are rare in the United States.) Other viruses that can cause hepatitis include Epstein-Barr virus (the virus that causes mono), cytomegalovirus, and adenovirus.

Hepatitis that’s not caused by a virus can happen due to a bacterial infection, an attack on the liver by the body’s own immune system (called autoimmune hepatitis), or damage to the liver from things like like alcohol or some types of medicines.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Hepatitis?

Hepatitis can look different in different people. Some people have no symptoms. Others have mild symptoms that clear up quickly. And some people might get severe symptoms that can lead to liver failure.

Acute hepatitis is a short-term illness. Symptoms start suddenly and often clear within 6 months. These can include:

  • jaundice (when the skin and whites of the eyes look yellow)
  • darker than usual urine (pee) or gray-colored stools
  • fever
  • nausea, vomiting, and lack of appetite
  • belly pain (on the upper right side)
  • joint pain

Chronic hepatitis is a long-term illness that lasts more than 6 months. An acute illness can turn into a chronic one if it doesn’t clear up. Kids with chronic hepatitis often have no symptoms, though some might be very tired or have mild belly pain. Chronic illness that leads to liver failure can cause jaundice, itching all over, swelling in the belly and legs, excessive bleeding or bruising, and other problems.

How Is Hepatitis Diagnosed?

To check for hepatitis, doctors do a blood test called a hepatic (liver) function panel to see how well the liver is working. If the test shows signs of liver inflammation, they might do more blood tests to look for a cause (for example, to check for antibodies to specific viruses). Signs of liver inflammation are common in a mild viral illness, so doctors might monitor a person's liver function with repeat blood tests until the inflammation clears up.

Sometimes a doctor might ask for an imaging test, like an ultrasound scan of the belly. They might also do a liver biopsy, where they use a needle take a small sample of the liver and look at it under a microscope.

How Is Hepatitis Treated?

Treatment will depend on the cause of the hepatitis. Most people with viral hepatitis don’t need specific treatment, as it often clears up on its own. Sometimes doctors will give an antiviral medicine.

For someone whose hepatitis is due to a medicine or something else in the environment, treatment means stopping the medicine or avoiding the substance that caused the hepatitis. Autoimmune hepatitis can be treated with medicines that suppress the immune system.

Someone who develops liver failure might need a liver transplant.

Can Hepatitis Be Prevented?

Vaccines can protect against two common viruses: hepatitis A vaccine and hepatitis B vaccine.

It can also help to:

  • Wash hands well and often, especially after using the toilet (or changing a diaper) and before eating or preparing food.
  • Keep medicines and alcohol locked and out of kids' reach. Always follow instructions for recommended doses of medicines.

Learn More About Hepatitis

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is contagious, and usually spreads through food, drink, or objects contaminated by feces (poop) containing the hepatitis A virus. The hepatitis A vaccine has made the infection less common in the United States and other developed countries.

This virus can cause severe symptoms, but unlike some other hepatitis viruses, it rarely leads to long-lasting liver damage. People recover from hepatitis A have immunity to the virus and won't get it again.

Read more about hepatitis A.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a more serious infection. It can lead to cirrhosis (permanent scarring) of the liver, liver failure, or liver cancer, causing severe illness and even death.

The hepatitis B virus spreads from person to person through blood or other body fluids. In the United States, this most commonly happens through unprotected sex with someone who's infected or from injecting drugs with shared needles that aren't sterilized. It also can pass from an infected mother to her unborn baby.

Read more about hepatitis B.

Hepatitis C

The hepatitis C virus spreads from person to person through blood or other body fluids, and can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. The most common way people become infected is by sharing drug equipment such as needles and straws. People also can get hepatitis C from unprotected sex with an infected partner. And it can pass from an infected mother to her unborn baby.

Hepatitis C is the most serious type of hepatitis. It's now one of the most common reasons for liver transplants in adults. Scientists have been trying for decades to develop a hepatitis C vaccine, so far without success. Fortunately, medicines can now treat people with hepatitis C and cure them in most cases.

Read more about hepatitis C.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: May 2022