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Hepatitis: Causes, Signs and Symptoms

Reviewed by
Date published
28/07/2021
Date last updated
15/07/2021
Length of read
7 Minutes

Hepatitis is a term used to describe the inflammation of the liver. It can be the result of either a viral infection or liver damage instigated by drinking alcohol.

Certain types of hepatitis can pass without serious problems being endured, however other forms can lead to long-lasting and chronic conditions, causing loss of liver function, scarring of the liver (known as cirrhosis) and liver cancer.

Symptoms Of Hepatitis

Acute (short-term) hepatitis doesn’t often have noticeable symptoms, which can result in many people not knowing they have the condition at all. Even those suffering from chronic (long-term) hepatitis may not have any obvious symptoms until the liver stops working properly (liver failure) and may therefore only be detected during blood tests.

If hepatitis symptoms do develop, they can include:

  • A high temperature
  • A loss of appetite
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • A general sense of feeling unwell
  • Dark urine
  • Pale / grey-coloured faeces
  • Feeling and being sick
  • Feeling unusually tired all the time
  • Tummy pain
  • Itchy skin
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)

In the later stages of hepatitis, symptoms can also include swelling in the legs, ankles and feet, jaundice, confusion, vomit or blood in stools.

Types Of Hepatitis

Hepatitis A

Caused by the hepatitis A virus, hepatitis A is usually caught by consuming food and drink that has been contaminated by an infected person. Hepatitis A is most common in countries where the sanitation is poor, and although can occasionally be severe or life-threatening, the virus usually passes within a few months.

Other than relieving symptoms such as pain, itching and nausea, there’s no specific treatment for it. A vaccination against hepatitis A is recommended if you’re at either a high risk of infection or at a high risk of severe consequences of infection, of if you’re travelling to an area in which the virus is common, such as Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Central and South America, the Far East and Eastern Europe.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus and is spread in the blood of an infected person. Common worldwide, the hepatitis B infection usually spreads from infected pregnant women to their babies or from child-to-child contact. In rare cases, the virus can be spread through injecting drugs and through unprotected sex. The hepatitis B infection is uncommon in the UK.

While most adults who have hepatitis B are able to fight the virus off and fully recover from the infection within a couple of months, most of those who were infected as children develop a long-term infection. Known as chronic hepatitis B, this can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer – antiviral medication can be used to treat it.

In the UK, a vaccination against hepatitis B is recommended for those in high-risk groups such as people who inject drugs, healthcare workers, men who have sex with men, children born to mothers who have hepatitis B, and people who are travelling to areas of the world where the infection is more common.

Hepatitis C

Caused by the hepatitis C virus, hepatitis C is the most common type of viral hepatitis in the UK. It is typically spread through blood-to-blood contact with an infected person. The way in which hepatitis C is most commonly spread within the UK is through sharing needles used to inject drugs. Outside of the UK, the main way it’s spread is through unsafe medical injections and poor healthcare practices.

Because hepatitis C often doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms, or if it does, they’re generally flu-like symptoms, many people are unaware that they’re infected. One in four people will fight off the infection and be free of the virus, however in the remaining cases, hepatitis C will stay in the body for many years. This is known as chronic hepatitis C and can cause cirrhosis and liver failure. Although there’s currently no vaccine available, chronic hepatitis C can be treated with effective antiviral medications.

Hepatitis D

Caused by the hepatitis D virus, hepatitis D will only affect people who are already infected with hepatitis B – hepatitis D needs the hepatitis B virus to be able to survive within the body. Usually spread through blood-to-blood contact or sexual contact, hepatitis D is uncommon in the UK. A long-term infection of hepatitis D and B can increase the risk of developing serious problems such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, and although there’s no vaccine specifically for the virus, the hepatitis B vaccine can help to protect from it.

Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E is caused by the hepatitis E virus and has mainly been associated with the consumption of raw or undercooked pork meat or offal, though also with wild boar meat, venison and shellfish. The number of cases of hepatitis E has increased in recent years, with the virus now being the most common cause of short-term hepatitis in the UK.

Hepatitis E, for most people, is a mild and short-term infection that doesn’t need any treatment. However, it can be serious for some people – for instance, those with a weakened immune system. There isn’t a vaccine for it, though when travelling to areas of the world with poor sanitation where epidemic hepatitis E may be common, practising good food and water hygiene measures will reduce the risk.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis is a form of hepatitis that is caused by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over the years. Though alcoholic hepatitis is a common condition in the UK, many people aren’t aware that they have it due to the fact it doesn’t usually cause any obvious symptoms – though symptoms for some can be jaundice and liver failure.

The risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis can be reduced by controlling the amount you drink – with the recommendation being that no more than 14 units of alcohol are regularly drunk a week. The liver will usually be able to recover once drinking has stopped, however there is a risk of eventually developing cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer if drinking excessively continues.

Autoimmune Hepatitis

Autoimmune hepatitis is a rare cause of long-term hepatitis. It involves the immune system attacking and damaging the liver. Ultimately, the liver can become so damaged that it stops working properly – it’s not clear what causes this type of hepatitis, or whether or not anything can be done to prevent it. The treatment for autoimmune hepatitis involves medicines that effectively suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation.

If you are concerned about your health, do not hesitate to visit your doctor.