Hepatitis is the term used to describe inflammation of the liver. It’s usually the result of a viral infection or liver damage caused by drinking alcohol. There are several different types of hepatitis. Some types will pass without any serious problems, while others can be long-lasting (chronic) and cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), loss of liver function and, in some cases, liver cancer.
Symptoms of hepatitis
Short-term (acute) hepatitis often has no noticeable symptoms, so you may not realise you have it.
If symptoms do develop, they can include:
• muscle and joint pain
• a high temperature
• feeling and being sick
• feeling unusually tired all the time
• a general sense of feeling unwell
• loss of appetite
• tummy pain
• dark urine
• pale, grey-coloured poo
• itchy skin
• yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
See your GP if you have any persistent or troublesome symptoms that you think could be caused by hepatitis.
Long-term (chronic) hepatitis also may not have any obvious symptoms until the liver stops working properly (liver failure) and may only be picked up during blood tests.
In the later stages it can cause jaundice, swelling in the legs, ankles and feet, confusion, and blood in your stools or vomit.
Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus. It’s usually caught by consuming food and drink contaminated with the poo of an infected person, and is most common in countries where sanitation is poor.
Hepatitis A usually passes within a few months, although it can occasionally be severe and even life threatening.
There’s no specific treatment for it, other than to relieve symptoms like pain, nausea and itching.
Vaccination against hepatitis A is recommended if:
• you’re at high risk of infection or severe consequences of infection
• you’re travelling to an area where the virus is common, such as the Indian subcontinent, Africa, Central and South America, the Far East and eastern Europe.
Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus, which is spread in the blood of an infected person.
It’s a common infection worldwide and is usually spread from infected pregnant women to their babies, or from child-to-child contact.
It can also be spread through unprotected sex and injecting drugs.
Hepatitis B is uncommon in the UK. It most commonly affects people who became infected while growing up in part of the world where the infection is more common, such as southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Most adults infected with hepatitis B are able to fight off the virus and fully recover from the infection within a couple of months.
But most people infected as children develop a long-term infection. This is known as chronic hepatitis B, and can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Antiviral medicine can be used to treat it.
In the UK, vaccination against hepatitis B is recommended for people in high-risk groups, such as:
• healthcare workers
• people who inject drugs
• men who have sex with men
• children born to mothers with hepatitis B
• people travelling to parts of the world where the infection is more common
Hepatitis B vaccination is also part of the routine immunisation programme so all children can benefit from protection from this virus.