What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is a disease that causes inflammation of the liver.
This vital organ regulates metabolism, produces proteins, stores vitamins and iron, removes toxins, and more. If the liver fails to function, serious illness and death can result.
There are a number of causes of hepatitis, including viruses, alcohol and immune disorders. Five main viruses have been identified as causing hepatitis: hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. Though they produce similar symptoms, the viruses vary in terms of transmission, impact, treatment and prevention. The most common types of viral hepatitis in Australia are A, B and C.
These viruses cause the liver to become inflamed, so that it doesn’t function properly.
Hepatitis is usually described as acute or chronic. An acute illness affects a person for a short period, with recovery possible within a few weeks; a chronic one lasts for a long time, and can be incurable.
Symptoms of hepatitis
Not everyone with hepatitis has symptoms. When they do occur, they may include:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Dark urine
- Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
- Lethargy (tiredness)
- Oedema (swelling)
- Painful joints
Causes of hepatitis
Hepatitis A is transmitted via the faeces or bowel contents of an infected person. Contact with foods, drinks or items that have been contaminated can lead to the transmission of the virus. Symptoms of infection with hepatitis A can last for weeks to months but a full recovery is usually made.
The hepatitis B virus is found in blood and bodily fluids such as sweat, saliva, semen and vaginal secretions. Hepatitis B can be contracted through unsafe sex, sharing needles, and other activities where the bodily fluid of an infected person enters the bloodstream of a non-infected person.
Mothers who have hepatitis B can pass the virus to their babies, either through the womb, at the time of birth or shortly after birth. Screening for hepatitis B during pregnancy will detect the disease. People who become infected with hepatitis B may develop a chronic infection. Babies and children who become infected have a greater risk of long term disease.
Hepatitis C is contracted when blood from an infected person enters another person’s bloodstream. In Australia, it is most commonly transmitted through sharing injecting drug equipment.
Around 25 per cent of people who are infected with hepatitis C may not require treatment and can clear the virus from their blood; these people are no longer infectious.
A larger percentage of people infected with hepatitis C, if untreated, may continue to have the virus in their blood and become chronically infected. Of those with chronic infection some may develop cirrhosis or scarring of the liver and liver cancer.
Uncommon in Australia, hepatitis D requires the presence of hepatitis B for infection. Hepatitis D is contracted in the same way as hepatitis B.
Hepatitis E is most common in developing countries, and is severe among pregnant women, particularly in the third trimester. The virus is found in the faeces of infected people and animals, and is spread by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. Pregnant women are strongly advised not to travel to areas where hepatitis E is rife.
Diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis
Tests used to diagnose hepatitis may include blood tests and a liver biopsy – where a small piece of liver tissue is taken for laboratory examination.
Treatment depends on the type of hepatitis.
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A. In most cases, the immune system will clear the infection and the liver will completely heal. Treatment is aimed at easing symptoms and reducing the risk of complications. This may include rest, eating small meals more often and avoiding intake of alcohol and some medications to protect the liver. Consult your doctor for a tailored treatment regime.
Immunisation is the best protection against hepatitis A infection and is recommended for people in high-risk groups. Immunisation includes a course of injections over a six to 12-month period.
Current treatments include antiviral medications, some of which are covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). It is also a good idea to limit alcohol intake and eat a well-balanced, low-fat diet.
Immunisation for hepatitis B is included in the standard immunisation schedule, beginning in infancy. Screening mothers before birth can prevent infection of newborn infants. Treatment including specialised hepatitis B antibodies or immunoglobulin and the hepatitis B vaccine given at birth can prevent the disease.
Treatment for Hepatitis C involves taking antiviral medications. This treatment helps reduce inflammation in the liver and can lead to cure in a large majority of cases. There is currently no vaccine available to prevent hepatitis C infection.
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis D, medication used to treat hepatitis B has a limited effect on hepatitis D. Vaccination for hepatitis B may be considered. Your doctor will advise you of the best treatment options.
There is currently no treatment for hepatitis E, just bed rest and fluid replacement. Prevention against the virus is the most effective approach – with no vaccination available, this involves drinking clean water and good personal hygiene.
Further information and sources