The liver is responsible for processing nutrients, filtering the blood, and fighting infections. When the liver is damaged (or inflamed) these functions are impaired. This can happen due to several reasons. A big one is alcohol misuse, of course, but other factors can weigh in: toxins, some medications and certain medical conditions. However, it is often caused by a virus such as the hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C viruses.
“Hepatitis” simply means inflammation of the liver. An inflamed liver has become enlarged past the size of a normal organ of its type. It is typically a sign of a more serious health condition. Illnesses or diseases that lead to an inflamed liver could also produce other symptoms.
Signs of liver inflammation:
- Feelings of fatigue
- Jaundice (a condition that causes your skin and the whites of your eyes to turn yellow)
- Feeling full quickly after a meal
- Abdominal pain
However, when referring to “hepatitis” one immediately thinks of the viral hepatitis variants and that is also what World Hepatitis Day focusses on. There are five main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. We’ll discuss A, B and C – the most common three.
- Sudden nausea and vomiting.
- Abdominal pain or discomfort, especially on the upper right side beneath your lower ribs (by your liver)
- Clay-coloured bowel movements.
- Loss of appetite.
- Low-grade fever.
- Dark urine.
- Joint pain.
There is no specific treatment of hepatitis A. It is usually a self-limiting condition. This means that it normally gets better without any treatment. Any treatment given is usually aimed at easing the symptoms of the illness.
- Bowel movements may become pale
- Urine may turn dark
People with the acute phase of hepatitis B, do not require treatment. For the majority of people, the symptoms resolve and the person can ‘clear’ the infection, usually within six months, meaning they are no longer infectious; their blood will always show the hepatitis B antibodies but they should never be infected again (they are considered ‘immune’).
Long term infection is chronic hepatitis B which often requires treatment to stop or reduce the activity of the virus from damaging the liver, by limiting the replication (reproduction) of the virus. This all depends on your “viral load.”
Hepatitis C infection can go through two stages: acute and chronic. In the ‘acute’ stage, symptoms can include:
- Flu-like symptoms, fatigue, high temperature and aches and pains
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice).
In most cases an acute infection will develop into long-term ‘chronic’ infection. Symptoms vary but some of the most common include:
- Problems with short-term memory, concentration and completing complex mental tasks (‘brain fog’)
- Depression or anxiety
- Mood swings
- Constantly fatigue
- Nausea, vomiting or tummy pain
- Dark urine
- Pale faeces
- Itchy skin
- Feeling bloated
- Joint and muscle pain.
This will depend on how long you have had the virus.
People with acute (short-term) infection do not always need treatment because their immune system may clear it on its own. If you test positive during the acute stage, your doctor may ask you to come back after a few months to re-test and to see if you need any treatment. If you develop a chronic (long-term) infection, you will need treatment to help clear the virus. Treatment with drugs called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) can cure hepatitis in most cases. These are usually taken for 8-12 weeks. Your doctor will also check your liver for any damage. If you’ve had hepatitis C in the past, you’re not immune to future. You can also still get other types of hepatitis and having hepatitis C together with another type is more serious. If you’ve already had hepatitis C, it’s advisable to have the vaccination against hepatitis A and B to protect your liver from further damage.