Hepatitis D

Written by April Kahn | Published on August 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Peter Rudd, MD

What Is Hepatitis D?

Hepatitis D, also known as the delta virus, is an infection that causes your liver to swell. It is caused by the hepatitis D virus (HDV) and is uncommon in the United States.

Hepatitis D is one of many forms of hepatitis—other types include hepatitis A, B, C, and E. Unlike the other forms, hepatitis D cannot be contracted on its own. You can only contract hepatitis D if you are already infected with hepatitis B.

There is no cure for hepatitis D and no vaccine to prevent it.

How Is Hepatitis D Contracted?

Hepatitis D is contagious and spread through contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids. Once you have hepatitis D, you can infect others even before your symptoms appear.

However, you can only contract hepatitis D if you already have hepatitis B. According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, about five percent of people with hepatitis B also have hepatitis D (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia).

You may develop hepatitis D at the same time you contract hepatitis B. You may also contract the hepatitis D virus in the later stages of your chronic hepatitis B infection.

What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis D?

The symptoms of hepatitis B and hepatitis D are similar, so it can be difficult to tell which disease is causing your symptoms. Common symptoms include:

  • yellowing of skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • joint pain
  • abdominal pains
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • dark urine
  • fatigue

Hepatitis D can also cause the symptoms of hepatitis B to worsen, or appear in those who have been infected but haven’t yet developed symptoms.

The virus can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). If you have chronic hepatitis D, you are at a higher risk of developing complications from the disease. Long-term or chronic hepatitis D might be present in your body for some time before the symptoms develop.

If you have the chronic form of hepatitis B, you are more likely to develop chronic hepatitis D.

Tests Used to Diagnose Hepatitis D

If you have symptoms of hepatitis D or B, you should see your doctor for a diagnosis. If you have symptoms of the disease without jaundice, your doctor may not suspect hepatitis.

Tell your doctor if you have been around anyone infected with hepatitis or if you’ve traveled to a country where hepatitis B is prevalent. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you are at particularly high risk if you (NIH):

  • use IV drugs
  • are a man who has sex with other men
  • receive many blood transfusions

Your doctor will do a blood test to detect anti-hepatitis D antibodies in your blood. If antibodies are found, it means you have had exposure to the virus.

If your doctor suspects you have liver damage, he or she might also give you a liver function test. This is a blood test that measures the levels of liver enzymes in your blood. Results from this test will show if your liver is stressed or damaged.

Treatment Options for Hepatitis D

Currently there are no known treatments for acute or chronic hepatitis D. Antiviral medications do not seem to be very effective in treating hepatitis D.

You may be given large doses of the medication interferon for up to 12 months. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), interferon can cause the disease to go into remission (WHO). However, even after treatment, people with hepatitis D can still test positive for the condition.

If you have significant liver scarring (cirrhosis) or other liver damage, you may need a liver transplant. A liver transplant is a major surgical operation that involves a surgeon removing your damaged liver and replacing it with a healthy donor liver.

Complications of Hepatitis D

Complications of hepatitis D include:

  • scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)
  • liver disease
  • liver cancer

People with long-term hepatitis D are more likely to suffer from these complications.

How to Prevent Hepatitis D

The only known way to prevent hepatitis D is to avoid infection with hepatitis B. There is a vaccine for hepatitis B—which all children should receive. Adults who are at high risk for infection, especially IV drug users, should also be vaccinated.

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