What is Hepatitis and How is It Treated?

Hepatitis is not a single disease, although the symptoms are usually similar no matter what the cause. It can be the result of an infection or damage caused by alcohol or toxins. In some cases, there is no treatment other than supportive therapy.

What is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is essentially an inflammatory process in the liver. Some cases of hepatitis heal on their own, while in other cases the disease causes scarring of the liver (fibrosis). Hepatitis increases the risk of cirrhosis (advanced, severe fibrosis that causes permanent liver damage) and liver cancer. The primary causes of hepatitis are viral infections from one of five types of hepatitis viruses, toxicity from alcohol, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, some drugs, or solvents like perchloroethylene, which is used to dry clean clothing. An autoimmune disease called primary biliary cirrhosis occurs when the body attacks its own cells as if they were invaders.

Infectious Hepatitis

Although there are others, the primary types of infectious hepatitis are indicated with the letters A, B, C, D and E. Types B and C are the most common cause of cancer and liver cirrhosis, according to the World Health Organization.

  1. Hepatitis A (HAV) – contaminated food or water. Some sexual practices can also spread HAV. In developing countries, HAV is very common. Vaccination is available for HAV.
  2. Hepatitis B (HBV) – infected body fluids such as blood. It can be transmitted to an infant by his or her mother at birth, through contaminated blood or medical devices, or injection drug use. Vaccines are available.
  3. Hepatitis C (HCV) – transmission of blood and body fluids., HCV is spread through contact with contaminated blood or medical devices and injection drug use. Less commonly spread through sexual contact. No vaccine is available.
  4. Hepatitis D (HDV) – transmission occurs through blood and body fluids. Occurs only in combination with the HBV virus; makes the infection worse. The HBV vaccine can help protect against HDV.
  5. Hepatitis E (HEV) – contaminated food and water. Although a vaccine has been developed, it is not widely available.

What are the Symptoms of Hepatitis?

Sometimes, even with an acute infection, the patient has no obvious symptoms. Hepatitis causes yellowed skin and eyes (jaundice). Other symptoms include abdominal pain, dark urine, extreme fatigue, headaches, nausea, vomiting and diminished appetite. Acute hepatitis may also cause complete liver failure.

How is Hepatitis Treated?

In many cases, treatment for hepatitis is primarily supportive – bed rest, fluids, abstaining from alcohol and a healthy diet. Medications to relieve symptoms may be used. Hepatitis B can be treated with the medications lamivudine and adefovir dipivoxil, while peginterferon and ribovarin are used in Hepatitis C.

How Can I Protect Myself?

Immunization is the best way to protect yourself against hepatitis A and B. For other types of infectious hepatitis, prevention primarily consists of basic hygiene: hand washing before cooking or meals and after using the bathroom, using latex condoms during sex, and not sharing drug needles or personal items like a toothbrush with an infected person. In some countries, you should avoid drinking tap water. Non-infectious hepatitis can be prevented by avoiding the toxin.

Hepatology is the specialty concerned with liver diseases such as hepatitis; doctors who practice this specialty are known as hepatologists. At Park Avenue Medical Professionals, we offer liver disease treatments and other services, such as gastroenterology. Please contact us today for an appointment or for answers to your questions about hepatitis. Fill out the form on this page to request an appointment or call 212.427.2000 to learn more.

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