Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. Infectious or viral hepatitis is caused by a viral infection. The three most common
Most patients with acute hepatitis A, even when severe, begin feeling better in two to three weeks, and recover completely in four to eight weeks. After recovering from hepatitis A, a person no longer carries the virus and remains immune for life. In the United States, serious complications are infrequent and deaths are rare. In the United States, as many as 75% of adults over the age of 50 will have blood test evidence of previous hepatitis A.
Each year an estimated 150,000 persons in the United States get hepatitis B. More than 10,000 will require hospital care, and as many as 5,000 will die from complications of the infection. About 90% of those infected will have only acute disease. A large majority of these patients will recover within three months. It is the remaining 10% with chronic infection who account for most serious complications and deaths from HBV infection. In the United States, perhaps only 2% of all infected will become chronically ill. People infected with both HIV and hepatitis B are most likely to die than from either disease alone. Even when no symptoms of liver disease develop, chronic carriers remain a threat to others by serving as a source of infection.
In roughly one-fifth of patients who develop hepatitis C, the acute infection will subside, and they will recover completely within four to eight weeks and have no later problems. Other patients face two risks: they themselves may develop chronic liver infection and possibly serious complications such as liver cancer, and they will continue carrying the virus and may pass it on to others. The overall risk of developing cirrhosis is about 15% for all patients infected by HCV. Liver failure is less frequent in patients with chronic hepatitis C than it is for those with other forms of hepatitis. In those people who also have AIDS, hepatitis C infection increases the chance for liver cancer.
A large majority of patients with coinfection of HBV and HDV recover from an episode of acute hepatitis. However, about two-thirds of patients chronically infected by HDV go on to develop cirrhosis of the liver. If severe liver failure develops, the chance of a patient surviving is no better than 50%. A liver transplant may improve this figure to 70%.
In the United States hepatitis E is not a fatal illness, but elsewhere 1–2% of those infected die of advanced liver failure. In pregnant women the death rate is as high as 20%. It is not clear whether having hepatitis E once guarantees against future HEV infection.
What little is known about the course of hepatitis G suggests that illness is mild and does not last long. When more patients have been followed up after the acute phase, it will become clear whether HGV can cause severe liver damage.
A health care professional will conduct a thorough medical history and physical examination of the patient when hepatitis is suspected. Blood tests for specific antigens and antibodies that are present in the different subtypes of hepatitis will confirm the diagnosis, although these tests cannot detect all types of hepatitis. Liver function tests that measure enzyme levels may also be performed.
Once symptoms appear, no antibiotics or other medicines will shorten the course of infectious hepatitis. Patients should rest in bed as needed, follow a healthy diet, and avoid drinking alcohol or taking any medications that could further damage the liver. Any medication that can cause liver damage should be avoided, and non-critical surgery should be postponed.
An herbalist or naturopathic health care professional may recommend a preparation of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) for the treatment of hepatitis. Milk thistle is thought to promote the growth of new liver cells, and to prevent toxins from penetrating through healthy liver cells by binding itself to the cell membranes. It is frequently prescribed by herbalists for the treatment of cirrhosis, hepatitis, and other liver disorders. A large controlled trial sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institutes of health (NIH) on milk thistle's medicinal value in the treatment of hepatitis and liver injury was scheduled to begin in the year 2000. Licorice (Glycyrriza glabra) may also be used for hepatitis. Its properties include protecting the liver and enhancing the immune system. Extended use of licorice should not be undertaken without medical consultation, since potassium deficiency may result.
Vitamin C may be taken as a nutritional supplement. It has been shown to help diminish acute hepatitis and help prevent hepatitis in hospitalized patients. Liver extracts are effective in liver regeneration, and have been used for over a century. Thymus extracts enhance the immune system, which may help the body fight a hepatitis virus.
A practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine may recommend Fructus Schisandrae Chinensis, which improves liver function; Fructus Citrulli Vulgaris, which helps to expel jaundice; or other herbs for hepatitis symptoms.
A natural body protein, interferon alpha, now can be made in large amounts by genetic engineering, and improves the outlook for many patients who have chronic hepatitis C. The protein can lessen the symptoms of infection and improve liver function. In 2003, a synthetic analogue was added to improve the treatment's effectiveness. Fever and flu-like symptoms are frequent side effects of this treatment. Approximately one-half of patients respond positively to the treatment, although only about 20% receive lasting effects. Several new treatment drugs have been tested and found beneficial in suppressing hepatitis B since early 2003. One of these drugs also helps those patients infected with both hepatitis B and HIV.
When hepatitis destroys most or all of the liver, the only hope may be a liver transplant. However, even when the procedure is successful, disease often recurs and cirrhosis may actually develop more rapidly than before.
The best way to prevent any form of viral hepatitis is to avoid contact with blood and other body fluids of infected individuals. The use of condoms during sex also is advisable. Travelers should avoid water and ice if unsure of their purity, or they can boil water before drinking it. All foods eaten should be packaged, well cooked, or, in the case of fresh fruit, peeled. Caution should be exercised when getting tattoos or body piercing, since a 2003 report said that only about one-half of tattoo and piercing shops follow the government's guidelines concerning infection control. These practices can pass hepatitis and HIV infection.
There are vaccines available for both hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Individuals in a high-risk group and travelers should be vaccinated for hepatitis A, and much of the general population can be vaccinated for hepatitis B.
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Hepatitis Foundation International. 30 Sunrise Terrace, Cedar Grove, NJ 07009-1423. (800) 891-0707. Fax: (973) 857-5044. http://www.hepfi.org/.
Centers for Disease Control. Hepatitis. http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/hepatitis/.
Hep Net: The Hepatitis Information Network. http://www.hepnet.com/.
Teresa G. Odle