An Overview of Hepatitis

Technician holding blood sample
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Hepatitis is a disease that includes any type of inflammation of the liver, the result of a complex process that occurs when the liver suffers an injury. Doctors call the inflammation that lasts less than six months acute hepatitis and inflammation that lasts longer than six months chronic hepatitis. While there are many causes of liver inflammation, clinicians divide them into two main categories: viral hepatitis and non-infectious hepatitis.

Viral Hepatitis

When most people think of hepatitis, they're usually thinking about viral hepatitis. There are five viruses that commonly infect the liver, named using letters of the alphabet -- A through E. What makes viral hepatitis confusing is that each one of these viruses causes a slightly different type of disease and has a different way of spreading. Some of these viral infections can result in acute, chronic or both forms of hepatitis. Since these viruses spread from person to person, doctors also call this type of hepatitis infectious hepatitis.

Non-Infectious Hepatitis

Not all causes of hepatitis are infectious. Chemicals such as alcohol or medications can be harmful to the liver and can cause inflammation. In addition, other health problems like genetic and metabolic disorders, immune-related injury and obesity, can damage the liver and lead to inflammation.

Since these types of hepatitis cannot spread from one person to another, clinicians call it non-infectious hepatitis.

Symptoms of Hepatitis

A variety of symptoms may develop in the setting of acute or chronic liver injury. Because the liver reacts in different ways depending on the cause and the duration of the inflammation, and some people have symptoms and some do not (a condition known as asymptomatic), only a physician can tell you if you have hepatitis.

While many people associate hepatitis with jaundice, where the skin and the whites of the eyes turn an abnormal yellow color, many people will not have jaundice because not enough of the yellow chemical has accumulated to a certain level in the body. Acute viral hepatitis usually results in fatigue, fever, nausea and vomiting, but these are common to many other diseases. Therefore, to make a diagnosis, a clinician will often need to use additional tests.

Testing for Hepatitis

The many causes of hepatitis create many ways to test for the disease. One basic test is to feel for an enlarged liver, known as hepatomegaly. Your doctor will do this test during clinical examination; if he finds an enlarged liver, they will look for causes and may order a blood test.

Some blood tests look for levels of enzymes and other proteins that may be disturbed when there is liver damage. Other blood tests will look for evidence of specific viruses, levels of toxins such as alcohol or Tylenol or even markers of genetic diseases such as iron or alpha-1 anti-trypsin.

Usually, the diagnosis of hepatitis is made using a combination of tests. More advanced tests might include using imaging technology such as ultrasound, computerized axial tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

A liver biopsy, where a doctor removes a small piece of the liver and sends it to a laboratory for further testing, may be necessary if a clear cause of the inflammation cannot be identified or if the doctors need to clarify how much of the liver is involved.

Living with Hepatitis

While some types of hepatitis resolve quickly, other types last for decades and will need to be managed closely by your physician. Living with any type of hepatitis requires having regular medical appointments and following your medical treatment plan.

In addition to medications, your treatment plan may include modifying your lifestyle, such as restricting alcohol and maintaining a healthful body weight, which helps prevent the disease from getting worse. Other lifestyle changes may be necessary to prevent spreading the disease, if infectious, to others.

Finally, seek out others who live with hepatitis. Many support groups exist to help educate and assist people and their families. With a little education and support, people with hepatitis can live full and complete lives.

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