Viral hepatitis is an infection of the liver that’s caused by a virus. In many cases, the infection will resolve on its own. However, some people develop chronic viral hepatitis. This is a very serious condition that can eventually lead to liver failure.
How can you know whether you have one of the hepatitis viruses? How can you protect yourself against viral hepatitis?
Causes of Viral Hepatitis
Viral hepatitis can be caused by one of several different hepatitis viruses. There are five main viruses that are known to cause hepatitis in humans. These are identified by the letters A, B, C, D, and E. The letters don’t stand for anything specific, but are simply a way to identify each virus.
Viral Hepatitis Symptoms
Although there are several different viruses that can cause viral hepatitis, the symptoms are generally similar. Symptoms of viral hepatitis may include:
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
Pale or clay-colored stool
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
Because the symptoms of different types of viral hepatitis generally overlap, the only way to know which hepatitis virus you have is to get a blood test. This will look for antibodies to the different hepatitis viruses, to determine which one you have. You can ask your doctor to order this test and then go to a lab to have blood drawn.
Alternatively, you can order a home test kit and take your own blood sample yourself through a fingerprick. This is a much more convenient option for many people, and also has the advantage of preserving your privacy.
How do you get viral hepatitis?
The different hepatitis viruses are acquired in different ways.
Ingestion. The hepatitis A and E viruses are transmitted when a person ingests the virus. This can happen through contaminated food or drink, or through close personal contact with an infected person.
Bodily fluids. The hepatitis B, C, and D viruses are transmitted through bodily fluids, including sexual fluids and blood. A person can get one of these viruses through unprotected sex, sharing needles or other drug injection equipment, or getting tattoos or piercings from providers who don’t follow strict hygiene procedures. A baby can also get one of these viruses from their mother in the womb.
The hepatitis D virus requires the hepatitis B virus to reproduce itself. This means that you can’t get hepatitis D on its own. You can get both hepatitis B and D at the same time, or you can get hepatitis D if you already had a hepatitis B infection. Having hepatitis D increases the severity of the disease caused by hepatitis B.
Is viral hepatitis curable?
Some types of viral hepatitis are curable. There are also vaccines that can prevent some types of viral hepatitis.
In general, the body will clear hepatitis A and E viruses on its own, without any specific treatment. People may need supportive medical care while they recover. However, there are no antiviral medications for these viruses. While most people do recover, it’s possible to die from hepatitis A or E.
There is a vaccine available to prevent hepatitis A. A vaccine to prevent hepatitis E has also been developed, but it’s not yet widely available.
In many cases, the hepatitis B and C viruses will also be cleared on their own. However, in some people, infection with the hepatitis B or C virus becomes chronic, meaning that the infection doesn’t go away.
Chronic viral hepatitis leads to liver damage. Over time, cirrhosis can develop. This is a very serious condition in which the liver tissue gradually becomes replaced by scar tissue, which means that it can’t function properly. Ultimately, cirrhosis is often fatal.
Hepatitis C can often be cured with antiviral medications. These must be taken for 8 to 12 weeks, and will cure the infection in 95% of people. Although the medications get rid of the virus, they won’t cure any liver damage that has already occurred. This is why it’s important to get tested as soon as you suspect that you might have the virus. Early treatment can avoid permanent liver damage, but if you wait until later, then you might have some lasting liver problems even if you take medications to cure the virus.
Hepatitis B cannot be cured. If your body doesn’t clear the infection, then it will become a long-term problem. There are medications that can help to slow the replication of the virus, but these won’t completely eliminate the virus from your body. However, hepatitis B can be prevented with a vaccine. The hepatitis B vaccine is a standard part of the childhood vaccination schedule, but if you didn’t get it as a child, then you can consider getting this vaccine as an adult.
Hepatitis D also cannot be cured. Because it’s always transmitted along with hepatitis B, vaccination for hepatitis B will also prevent you from getting hepatitis D.
What is Viral Hepatitis? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/abc/index.htm. Accessed 18 April 2023.
Hepatitis. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/health-topics/hepatitis. Accessed 18 April 2023.
Hepatitis (Viral). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/liver-disease/viral-hepatitis. Accessed 18 April 2023.