What is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver and can be due to many causes including viral infections. There are a number of viral infections that tend to affect the liver - the main ones being hepatitis A, B and C. Other infections can affect the liver by causing transient hepatitis but are not considered to be “liver diseases”; these include infections such as chicken pox and glandular fever.

Hepatitis A is usually a brief infection lasting only a few weeks and is often asymptomatic, however it may cause jaundice or abdominal pain. It is spread by imperfect hygiene and is very common in most of the developing world. It usually resolves itself and in less than 1% of cases is serious. Hepatitis A can be prevented by a vaccination.

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Hepatitis B may present as a brief acute infection lasting up to six months or a chronic life long infection. If hepatitis B is contracted as a child, the patient is far more likely to have the chronic form of the disease. Only 3 – 5 % of patients who contract the infection as adults, are likely to develop the chronic form. The acute form causes jaundice and abdominal pain and is very rarely serious unless it progresses to the chronic form. Initially, the chronic form usually causes very few symptoms and may present many years later with damage to the liver such as cirrhosis or liver cancer. Patients with chronic hepatitis B and high levels of the virus in the blood may benefit from interferon or antiviral treatment. Worldwide the most common way in which hepatitis B is spread is at birth from a mother to a child and by sexual and blood contact. Hepatitis B can be prevented by a vaccination.

Hepatitis C is usually a chronic long-term infection and five different types, numbered 1 to 5, can occur. Hepatitis C does not usually cause problems for many years or decades until it eventually leads to scarring of the liver. This may happen in up to 20% of people as much as 20 years after the initial infection has been contracted. Hepatitis C is often found via routine blood tests, whilst at an asymptomatic phase. Some patients with hepatitis C may complain of severe fatigue. Patients at risk of complications of liver disease may be offered interferon treatment, which carries a 50-80% chance of clearing the infection dependent on the type of hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is usually spread via the blood and risk factors include blood transfusion and previous intravenous drug use, however 1 in 20 people who contract hepatitis C have no identifiable risk factor. Hepatitis C it is less common and affects 1 in 200 people in England. It is however commonly seen in people from Pakistan and Bangladesh, where it can affect up-to 1 in 8 people; this is unfortunately, often due to unsafe sterilisation of reusable medical equipment. It is difficult to catch hepatitis C sexually - the risk is around 2%. Hepatitis C cannot be prevented by a vaccination.

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