Hepatitis is swelling and inflammation of the liver. It is not a condition, but is often used to refer to a viral infection of the liver.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Hepatitis can be caused by:
- Immune cells in the body attacking the liver and causing autoimmune hepatitis
- Infections from viruses (such as hepatitis A, B, or C), bacteria, or parasites
- Liver damage from alcohol, poisonous mushrooms, or other poisons
- Medications, such as an overdose of acetaminophen, which can be deadly
For more information about the causes and risk factors for different types of hepatitis, see also:
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Autoimmune hepatitis
- Delta agent (hepatitis D)
- Drug-induced hepatitis
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Hepatitis C
Liver disease can also be caused by inherited disorders such as cystic fibrosis or hemochromatosis, a condition that involves having too much iron in your body (the excess iron deposits in the liver).
Other causes include Wilson's disease.
Hepatitis may start and get better quickly (acute hepatitis), or cause long-term disease (chronic hepatitis). In some instances, it may lead to liver damage, liver failure, or even liver cancer.
How severe hepatitis is depends on many factors, including the cause of the liver damage and any illnesses you have. Hepatitis A, for example, is usually short-term and does not lead to chronic liver problems.
The symptoms of hepatitis include:
- Abdominal pain or distention
- Breast development in males
- Dark urine and pale or clay-colored stools
- Fever, usually low-grade
- General itching
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
Many people with hepatitis B or C do not have symptoms when they are first infected. They can still develop liver failure later. If you have any risk factors for either type of hepatitis, you should be tested regularly.
Signs and tests
A physical examination may show:
- Enlarged and tender liver
- Fluid in the abdomen (ascites) that can become infected
- Yellowing of the skin
Your doctor may order laboratory tests to diagnose and monitor the hepatitis, including:
Your doctor will discuss possible treatments with you, depending on the cause of your liver disease. Your doctor may recommend a high-calorie diet if you are losing weight.
There are support groups for people with all types of hepatitis, which can help you learn about the latest treatments and better cope with having the disease.
For information on hepatitis outlook, see these articles:
- Liver cancer
- Liver failure
- Permanent liver damage, called cirrhosis
Other complications include:
Calling your health care provider
Seek immediate care if you:
- Have symptoms from too much acetaminophen or other medicines -- you may need to have your stomach pumped
- Vomit blood
- Have bloody or tarry stools
- Are confused or delirious
Call your doctor if:
- You have any symptoms of hepatitis or believe that you have been exposed to hepatitis A, B, or C.
- You cannot keep food down due to excessive vomiting. You may need to receive nutrition through a vein (intravenously).
- You feel sick and have travelled to Asia, Africa, South America, or Central America.
For more information on how to prevent hepatitis, see:
Dienstag JL. Hepatitis B virus infection. N Engl J Med. 2008;359:1486-1500.
Jou JH, Muir AJ. In the clinic. Hepatitis C. Ann Intern Med. 2008;148:iTC6-1-ITC6-16.
Sjogren MH, Cheatham JG. Hepatitis A. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa:Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 77.
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.