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Though it comes in many forms, viral hepatitis is essentially inflammation of the liver, caused by a virus. It kills 1.4 million people every year, but there are a range of vaccinations and treatments - even cures - available for the disease.1
But how would you recognise it if you had contracted hepatitis yourself? There aren’t always symptoms, but when they do present themselves, they can include:
- Joint and muscle pain
- Fever/high temperature over 38°c (100.4F) or above
- Feeling sick or vomiting
- Feeling generally unwell
- Low appetite
- Stomach pains
- Dark urine
- Pale, grey-coloured stools
- Itchiness in the skin
- Jaundice - yellowing of the eyes and skin2
Types of hepatitis
There are five different hepatitis viruses, all with different causes, symptoms, prevention and treatments. In addition, there are two non-viral kinds: hepatitis caused by excessive alcohol consumption (Alcoholic hepatitis), and Autoimmune hepatitis.
Hepatitis A usually passes after several months, but in some cases can be severe to the point of fatal. The hepatitis A virus is usually caught by ingesting food or drink contaminated by faeces of someone already infected. It is most common in areas with poor sanitation, which is why vaccination is recommended when travelling to areas where the virus is widespread.
These include parts of South Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the Far East and Eastern Europe. Beyond vaccination, there is no specific treatment for Hepatitis A, other than for relief of symptoms like pain, nausea and itching.2
The hepatitis B virus is transmitted by the blood of an infected person. Most commonly, this happens from mother to child during pregnancy, though in some cases can be spread through unprotected sex, or contaminated needles. Adults that contract the virus are usually able to fight it off within months and make a good or full recovery, but for those infected as children it can lead to chronic hepatitis B.
This can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer, and is treated with antiviral medicine. Hepatitis B is less common in the UK than in places such as Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, though people in high-risk groups (such as healthcare workers, gay men, people who inject drugs, and those travelling to places where the virus is common) are advised to have vaccinations against it.2
This is caused by the hepatitis C virus, which is the most common form in the UK, this is most often spread through the blood of someone already infected. For the most part, this is through needle sharing. Outside of the UK, the virus is also spread through bad healthcare practices and unsafe medical injections. One of the reasons it’s so easy for hepatitis C to go undetected by those who have it, is a lack of symptoms - either none at all, or only flu-like symptoms.
Around three in four people who contract the virus will develop chronic hepatitis C, as it remains in the body for years. This can result in cirrhosis and liver failure.2
Whilst there is currently no vaccine for the virus, there are very effective anti-viral medicines available.
If someone is already infected with hepatitis B, they can also contract hepatitis D (the D virus needs the B virus in order to survive in the human body). Hepatitis D is normally spread through infected blood or sexual contact, but is uncommon in the UK. In the long term, infection with both hepatitis B and D can increase the risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer. There is no vaccine available for hepatitis D, but the hepatitis B vaccine can provide protection from it.2
The hepatitis E virus is normally spread though food and drink contaminated by faecal matter of an infected person. The infection is generally short term, without severe effects, and in such cases will not require treatment. A minority of people - those with poor immune systems, or who have had organ transplants, for example - are at risk of hepatitis E becoming chronic. As there is no vaccine available for hepatitis E, people are advised to be more vigilant about food and water hygiene, especially when visiting places that have poor sanitation.2
This is quite common in the UK, and is caused by excessive consumption of alcohol over a period of many years. As with some viral forms, alcoholic hepatitis doesn’t normally cause symptoms. In some cases, it can cause sudden jaundice (yellowing of the skin) and liver failure. Cutting out alcohol will normally allow the liver to recover, but sustained excessive drinking will increase the risk of cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure.2
This is a rare, non-viral form of hepatitis, which causes the immune system to attack and damage the liver, sometimes to the point where the liver is so damaged it no longer works properly. It is not known what causes autoimmune hepatitis, nor whether anything can be done to prevent it. It can however be treated, with medicines that reduce inflammation and curb the body’s immune system.2
If you think you might be at risk of developing hepatitis, or have noticed some of the symptoms listed above, we would recommend seeing your GP. You can find more information about hepatitis and the work to prevent, treat and cure it here.
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