What Is Viral Hepatitis?
Viral hepatitis is an infection by a virus that primarily affects the liver. The liver is inflamed and becomes tender and swollen. The infection may destroy some parts of the liver.
There are three basic types of viral hepatitis: Hepatitis A; Hepatitis B; and Hepatitis C (previously known as non-A, non-B hepatitis). These types of hepatitis are based on the type of virus that is responsible for the infection. A fourth virus–the delta hepatitis virus–causes hepatitis only in a person already infected with Hepatitis B. Other viruses associated with hepatitis include Hepatitis E and G.
How does it occur?
The viruses that cause hepatitis can be spread by:
- contamination from bowel movements
- inadequately cooked shellfish taken from polluted waters
- sexual contact
- contaminated needles
- nasal mucus
- breast milk.
Some types of viral hepatitis can be transmitted by carriers who show no symptoms. These people are called asymptomatic carriers.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may not appear until 2 weeks to 6 months after a person is infected with the virus, or there may never be any obvious symptoms.
When symptoms first occur, they may be the following typical symptoms of infection:
- loss of appetite
- general aches
Other possible early symptoms are:
- itching hives
- painful joints
- loss of taste for cigarettes in smokers
After several days other symptoms may follow:
- nausea and vomiting
- foul breath, bitter taste in the mouth
- darkened urine
- yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)
- pain just below the ribs on the right side, especially when pressure is applied
- bowel movements that are whitish or light yellow and may be looser than normal.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will review your symptoms and examine you. He or she will press on your abdomen to see if the liver is enlarged and tender. The doctor may order the following laboratory tests:
- analysis of a urine sample
- analysis of a stool sample
- blood tests, including tests to determine what type of hepatitis you have.
How is it treated?
Antibiotics are not useful in treating hepatitis. The usual treatment is bed rest, a balanced diet, and total abstinence from alcohol.
Hospitalization is required only in more serious cases (for instance, if you become severely dehydrated).
You should avoid taking certain drugs that are metabolized in the liver. Ask your doctor which drugs these are.
How long do the effects last?
It usually takes 1 to 3 months to recover from an acute case of hepatitis.
Relapse can occur after some types of hepatitis. It can be triggered by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or overexertion before full recovery. It may be caused by a second infection. Relapses are generally milder than the initial infection and respond well to rest.
Chronic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that lasts longer than 6 months. It can last for several years and may develop in people who have Hepatitis B or non-A, non-B hepatitis.
Hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis, in which damage to the liver results in gradual changes to the liver structure. In severe, rare cases, liver function may be permanently impaired.
How can I take care of myself?
Rest in bed until your fever is gone, your urine returns to its normal color, and your jaundice lessens. Check with your doctor on the amount of bed rest that is necessary.
Do not drink any alcoholic beverages for at least 6 months.
You should not take certain drugs that are metabolized in the liver. Ask your doctor which drugs these are.
Follow a balanced diet, even when you feel nauseous. Especially in early stages of the disease, fatty foods may not appeal to you. Soda, juices, and hard candy may help reduce nausea.
Follow your doctor’s instructions for medicines to take to relieve your symptoms.
As your symptoms improve, you may gradually increase your level of activity. You should avoid too much exercise for 6 months.
What can be done to help prevent viral hepatitis?
Vaccinations are available that effectively prevent Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B infections. In some cases gamma globulin shots may be given.
If you have hepatitis, the doctor may advise that your close friends and family get shots to prevent getting hepatitis from you.
If someone in your household has hepatitis, take the following precautions:
- Flush bowel movements down the toilet and [wash your hands ] immediately.
- Wear gloves if you must have contact with contaminated bowel movements. (A & B)
- Wash clothing and bed linens that are visibly soiled with a detergent that kills germs. (A & B)
- Clean contaminated toilets and surfaces with a disinfectant.
- Avoid sharing toothbrushes, razor blades, nail files, nail clippers, I.V. needles and snorting straws with anyone who has hepatitis.
- Avoid sexual contact with anyone who has Hepatitis A or B.