Viral hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by a virus. There are several different virus strains in the hepatitis family that cause viral hepatitis. Some of them include:

  • hepatitis A: spread primarily through food or water contaminated by feces from an infected person. Rarely, it spreads through contact with infected blood.
  • hepatitis B: spread through contact with infected blood, through sex with an infected person, and from mother to child during childbirth, whether the delivery is vaginal or via cesarean section.
  • hepatitis C: spread primarily through contact with infected blood. Less commonly, it can spread through sexual contact and childbirth.
  • hepatitis D: spread through contact with infected blood. This disease only occurs at the same time as infection with hepatitis B or in people who are already infected with hepatitis B.
  • hepatitis E: spread through food or water contaminated by feces from an infected person. This disease is uncommon in the United States.

There is also another type of hepatitis that is not viral or contagious known as autoimmune hepatitis:

  • Autoimmune hepatitis is a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks liver cells. This immune response causes inflammation of the liver, also called hepatitis. Researchers think a genetic factor may make some people more susceptible to autoimmune diseases. About 70 percent of those with autoimmune hepatitis are female.The disease is usually quite serious and if not treated, gets worse over time. Autoimmune hepatitis is typically chronic, meaning it can last for years, and can lead to cirrhosis scarring and hardening of the liver. Eventually, liver failure can result.

All of the viral types of hepatitis cause acute, or short-term, viral hepatitis. The hepatitis B, C, and D viruses can also cause chronic hepatitis, in which the infection is prolonged, sometimes lifelong. Chronic hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.

Researchers are looking for other viruses that may cause hepatitis, but none have been identified with certainty. Other viruses that less often affect the liver include cytomegalovirus; Epstein-Barr virus, also called infectious mononucleosis; herpesvirus; parvovirus; and adenovirus.”

  • Viral hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E viruses.
  • Viral hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E viruses.
  • Depending on the type of virus, viral hepatitis is spread through contaminated food or water, contact with infected blood, sexual contact with an infected person, or from mother to child during childbirth.

Other things to note:

  • Vaccines offer protection from hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
  • No vaccines are available for hepatitis C, D, and E. Reducing exposure to the viruses offers the best protection.
  • Hepatitis A and E usually resolve on their own. Hepatitis B, C, and D can be chronic and serious. Drugs are available to treat chronic hepatitis.

Some cases of viral hepatitis cannot be attributed to the hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E viruses, or even the less common viruses that can infect the liver, such as cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, herpesvirus, parvovirus, and adenovirus. These cases are called non-A–E hepatitis. Scientists continue to study the causes of non-A–E hepatitis.

Symptoms include:

  • jaundice, which causes a yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • fatigue
  • abdominal pain
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • low grade fever
  • headache

However, some people do not have symptoms.

Diagnosis of viral hepatitis is based on symptoms, physical findings as well as blood tests for liver enzymes, viral antibodies, and viral genetic materials.

Diagnosis of acute viral hepatitis often is easy, but diagnosis of chronic hepatitis can be difficult. When a patient reports symptoms of fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, darkening of urine, and then develops jaundice, the diagnosis of acute viral hepatitis is likely and can be confirmed by blood tests. On the other hand, patients with chronic hepatitis due to hepatitis B and hepatitis C often have no symptoms or only mild nonspecific symptoms such as chronic fatigue. Typically, these patients do not have jaundice until the liver damage is far advanced. Therefore, these patients can remain undiagnosed for years to decades.

There are three types of blood tests for evaluating patients with hepatitis: liver enzymes, antibodies to the hepatitis viruses, and viral proteins or genetic material (viral DNA or RNA).

Among the most sensitive and widely used blood tests for evaluating patients with hepatitis are the liver enzymes, called aminotransferases. They include aspartate aminotransferase (AST or SGOT) and alanine aminotransferase (ALT or SGPT). These enzymes normally are contained within liver cells. If the liver is injured (as in viral hepatitis), the liver cells spill the enzymes into the blood, raising the enzyme levels in the blood and signaling that the liver is damaged.

Elevated blood levels of AST and ALT only means that the liver is inflamed, and elevations can be caused by many agents other than hepatitis viruses, such as medications, alcohol, bacteria, fungus, etc. In order to prove that a hepatitis virus is responsible for the elevations, blood must be tested for antibodies to each of the hepatitis viruses as well as for their genetic material.

Antibodies are proteins produced by white blood cells that attack invaders such as bacteria and viruses. Antibodies against the hepatitis A, B, and C viruses usually can be detected in the blood within weeks of infection, and the antibodies remain detectable in the blood for decades thereafter. Blood tests for the antibodies can be helpful in diagnosing both acute and chronic viral hepatitis.

Obstruction of the bile ducts, from either gallstones or cancer, occasionally can mimic acute viral hepatitis. Ultrasound testing can be used to exclude the possibility of gallstones or cancer.