Protect Your Liver from Hepatitis
The word hepatitis means “liver inflammation.”
There are several types of viral hepatitis (A, B, C, D and E) that can be transmitted from one person to another in different ways. Other types of hepatitis are caused by drugs, alcohol or toxins, metabolic conditions or immune disorders. All variations of this condition attack the liver and can lead to serious complications. Hep A and Hep B are vaccine-preventable, and other types can be avoided with proper sanitation and lifestyle choices.
Is hepatitis contagious?
There are five types of contagious viral hepatitis.
Hepatitis A: This highly contagious liver infection is typically caused by ingesting food or water containing the Hep A virus (typically contaminated with infected feces). This virus can also spread through sexual contact. In areas of the world with poor sanitation, most people have been infected with this virus.
Hepatitis B: This serious liver infection is typically transmitted through contaminated blood, body fluids like semen, childbirth (spread from mother to baby), IV drug use with infected needles, medical infusions or injections with infected equipment, and close contact between a family member and a young child. Because Hep B spreads easily, it can cause outbreaks affecting millions of people and is one of the most common causes of life-threatening acute liver failure, liver cirrhosis (irreversible scarring) and liver cancer.
Hepatitis C: This infection usually occurs as a result of (non-oral) contact with infected body fluids or blood, including transfusions and injections with contaminated blood and medical procedures using contaminated equipment. This virus can also spread through sexual contact, though it’s less common. Hep C causes liver inflammation, and, like Hep B, the virus can affect millions of people and is one of the most common causes of liver cirrhosis and cancer.
Hepatitis D: This serious liver disease usually occurs in patients who already have Hep B. Having both types of hepatitis infection can lead to more serious disease and worsen health outcomes. The virus that causes Hep D is transmitted through infected body fluids and is commonly spread through transfusions with contaminated blood and medical procedures using contaminated equipment.
Hepatitis E: This liver disease is typically caused by ingesting food or water contaminated with the Hep E virus. It is also transmitted through blood transfusions and organ transplants from infected donors.
Alcoholic hepatitis: This form of steatotic liver disease (formerly called fatty liver disease) causes liver inflammation that can become life-threatening. This type of hepatitis is a result of drinking too much alcohol. Alcoholic hepatitis is not contagious.
Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH): This condition is another type of steatotic liver disease that resembles alcoholic hepatitis but affects people who do not drink heavily. The causes of NASH are still being studied, as researchers are exploring genetic and metabolic risk factors. This condition is one of the most common causes of liver cirrhosis and may require liver transplantation. NASH is not contagious.
Autoimmune hepatitis: In some people, this immune disorder can attack the liver, causing inflammation. This type of hepatitis is not contagious.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis?
Viral hepatitis can be acute (short-term) or chronic (lifelong). Chronic forms of viral hepatitis can lead to liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Symptoms of viral hepatitis vary. Some people have no symptoms, while others may have:
- abdominal pain
- body itching (pruritus)
- muscle and joint pain
- nausea and vomiting
- weight loss/lack of appetite
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- dark urine
Is hepatitis preventable?
Following infection with the Hepatitis A virus, many people fully recover, leaving them immune to reinfection with this variant but still vulnerable to other types of hepatitis. To avoid getting infected in the first place, you can get vaccinated against Hep A and B. By getting vaccinated for Hep B, you also protect yourself from Hep D infection. These vaccines are safe and effective if you are not already infected with these viruses. There is no vaccine for Hep C or Hep E.
Alcoholic hepatitis can be prevented by limiting or eliminating alcohol consumption before the liver becomes inflamed.
The genetic and environmental triggers for autoimmune hepatitis are not fully understood. If this disease runs in your family, it may be possible to help reduce your risk of developing it by avoiding alcohol and drugs, getting enough exercise and eating a diet that promotes the health of your liver. Speak with a hepatologist (liver specialist) to learn about your individual risk as well as prevention and treatment approaches.
Is hepatitis treatable?
If you or a loved one have symptoms of viral hepatitis, get evaluated by a hepatologist. Diagnostic tests for hepatitis include urine and blood tests (including liver function studies, cellular blood counts, electrolytes and autoimmune antibody detection), abdominal ultrasound, CT and MRI scans and liver biopsy using ultrasound imaging.
If you are diagnosed with viral hepatitis, you may benefit from certain medicines like oral antivirals and other medications to help manage symptoms.
Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis can be managed with diet, exercise and weight loss. If you have this condition, it is important to reduce your risk for disease progression before you develop liver cirrhosis. If you drink alcohol, quitting can help you avoid further liver damage. Your doctor may also recommend nutritional counseling to help you identify the best (and worst) foods to help improve your symptoms and keep your liver healthy.
If your hepatitis condition is advanced or doesn’t respond well to management therapy, a liver transplant may be an option.
The Schiff Center for Liver Diseases, Hepatology Research Lab, part of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Health System, is actively conducting clinical trials and research studies seeking new and safer medicines for patients living with viral hepatitis. To learn if you qualify to participate in a related study at UHealth, call 305-243-8644 or request an appointment online.
Written by Dana Kantrowitz, a contributor for UHealth’s news service. Medically reviewed by Kalyan Ram Bhamidimarri, M.D., M.P.H., a hepatologist with the University of Miami Health System, who specializes in diseases of the liver.