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Viral Hepatitis


Viral hepatitis is a potentially serious infection of the liver.

There are various different hepatitis viruses that cause this diffuse liver inflammation as is summarized in the table below. The link explains that there are a other factors that can also cause inflammation. Transmission of viral hepatitis is by the fecal-oral route. Blood and secretions (blood, saliva, sperm) can also be contagious.

Contaminated needles are a big problem wherever needles are shared. Many, if not most infections are unrecognized and subclinical, which means that nobody suspects the person to have had hepatitis. There may only be a fleeting tiredness. There are 6 different types of hepatitis viruses known that cause slightly different clinical courses (see table below).

Viral hepatitis

Name of hepatitis Type of virus Comments:
Hepatitis A RNA picorna virus, single stranded does not lead to chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis
Hepatitis B infectious particle has a double stranded DNA virus core and an outer envelope significant portion goes on to chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer
Hepatitis C flavivirus-like RNA virus, single stranded if not treated aggressively, goes on to chronic hepatitis, liver cirrhosis and liver cancer later. Common among drug users sharing needles. Also common in prostitutes.
Hepatitis D defective RNA virus, needs hepatitis B virus to be present about 50 % of unusually severe hepatitis B cases are due to simultaneous hepatitis D; can lead to severe chronic hepatitis
Hepatitis E RNA virus this virus is transmitted through contaminated water; no chronic hepatitis known
Hepatitis G RNA virus, which is flavivirus-like may be responsible for some chronic hepatitis cases


As 5% of hepatitis B patients, 100% of hepatitis C patients and a significant number of hepatitis D and G patients are going on to a chronic hepatitis state, these patients become a large, worldwide reservoir for new hepatitis cases as their body secretions and blood transmit the hepatitis virus.

Signs and symptoms

Hepatitis can present like a mild flu-like illness, from which the patient recovers in a few days to 1 week, or it can present as an acute liver failure leading to a hepatic coma and death within a few days. Most cases present with a prodromal phase where a smoker has a violent distaste for cigarettes and where there is a profound dislike for food.

Nausea, vomiting, feeling sick, having joint pains all over are all part of the symptoms. With hepatitis B there are often itchy hives and other skin rashes that are a nuisance to the patient. About 3 to 10 days into hepatitis there is a darkening of the urine, which is followed by the development of jaundice. This is called the icteric phase (period where jaundice is obvious). The jaundice peaks over 1 to 2 weeks. Then the jaundice disappears over another 2 to 4 weeks, which is called the recovery phase. The physician will feel an enlarged liver that is tender to palpation.

Viral Hepatitis (The Natural Target For These Viruses Is The Liver)

Viral Hepatitis (The Natural Target For These Viruses Is The Liver)

Diagnostic tests

Blood tests have to be done to do liver function tests with liver enzymes, but specific viral hepatitis markers have to be looked at as well.

IgM antibodies, if positive for hepatitis A, are typical as a marker. Hepatitis B is diagnosed by the hepatitis B surface antigen marker. The presence of hepatitis C is verified by anti hepatitis C antibody in the blood. The remaining hepatitis types (D, E and G) require input from special research laboratories and may have to be sent to such for further analysis. You may be curious to know what happened to “hepatitis F”. The initial claim of a new type F hepatitis could not be verified by other researchers with more refined tests. So now “F” stands for “failed” and serves as an example in medical history of how not everything that appears to be something is necessarily something with the test of time.

Lab tests with hepatitis

In the acute phase of a viral hepatitis the transaminases are very high, in the range of 450 to 2000 IU/liter. Mostly the ALT is higher than the AST. There is no correlation between the severity of the disease and the height of the liver enzymes in the blood. White blood cell counts are usually low or normal, a blood smear reveals some atypical reactive lymphocytes.

In acute hepatitis liver biopsy is rarely required. However, with chronic hepatitis a biopsy is commonly done to identify why a person after 8 weeks into a hepatitis still has it. As hepatitis is an exceedingly complex area of medicine, it is wise to refer a patient with chronic hepatitis to a gastroenterologist or even to a hepatologist, who is even more specialized on liver diseases.


In the past physicians thought that isolation would stop the spread of viral hepatitis, but this did not prevent further spread of the disease. There should be awareness that stool and blood of an infected patient are infectious and these should be carefully handled. Health professionals who treat needle stick injuries to personnel who treat hepatitis patients follow a protocol according to the hepatitis type that the patient has.

Treatment according to type of viral hepatitis

If the patient has hepatitis A, standard immune globulin therapy would be used. If the patient has hepatitis B, then hepatitis B immune globulin would be given (this is more expensive). Physicians are giving newborns of hepatitis B positive mothers hepatitis B immune globulin right away at birth along with the hepatitis B vaccine. This will prevent 70% of chronic hepatitis B in these children! Physicians are giving hepatitis A and B vaccines to travellers before they go to endemic areas. Physicians now treat hepatitis C with direct-acting antivirals (DAA). This cures 99% of hepatitis C cases within 6 months.

Chronic hepatitis

Chronic hepatitis develops in about 5 % of hepatitis B patients and 80% of hepatitis C patients. About 20% of patients with chronic hepatitis develop cirrhosis of the liver from the chronic inflammation, but it often takes several decades to develop. Here is a picture of a cirrhotic liver. A patient with this type of liver often has jaundice, has ascites in the abdomen and portal hypertension with periumbilical varicose veins as well as gynecomastia. Once cirrhosis has developed, the patients are at a higher risk to develop cancer of the liver later in life. In the past the opinion was that corticosteroids are useful, but now we know that they are not advisable in the treatment of chronic viral hepatitis.  Now we know that corticosteroids enhance viral multiplication. Physicians used interferon treatment three times per week. This has led to remissions in about 1/3 of hepatitis B patients.

Higher cure rates with ribavirin and direct-acting antivirals

Hepatitis C has now much higher cure rates than in the past.  Physicians thought then that  a 50 % response rates in terms of suppression of inflammation in hepatitis C patients was “good”. Several developments that occurred were instrumental in this improvement:

1) The response rate improved with the addition of ribavirin an antiviral drug that the doctor can order twice per day.

2) With the arrival of direct-acting antivirals (DAA) interferon treatment is now obsolete. DAA therapy can achieve cure rates of  up to 99% in 6 months. Also, the side effects are much less than they were with interferon treatment.

Liver transplant

A liver transplant is the last resort for hepatitis C patients. When liver function deteriorates and the patient would otherwise die, if left alone, the specialist can offer the hepatitis C patient a liver transplant. The longterm results are amazingly good despite a high reinfection rate. Liver function returns to normal after the transplant and the clinical course is much more stable for many years to come. Liver transplants are not successful for hepatitis B patients as autoimmune reactions will lead to early failure of the graft. All of the treatments mentioned above should be in the hands of a specialist for liver diseases or in the hands of an experienced gastroenterologist (Ref. 4, p. 377).


It is clear from the above that it is important to prevent any form of hepatitis (A, B or any other type). Wit hepatitis A and B vaccinations are readily available. So it is best to vaccinate children with these as I pointed out in this blog. But prevention goes further: avoid situations where you could get infected with hepatitis. Use gloves when cleaning up after a sick patient as body fluids are highly contagious. Avoid sexual relations with a person known to have hepatitis C or wear condoms (but this is not entirely safe). Use common sense.


1. The Merck Manual, 7th edition, by M. H. Beers et al., Whitehouse Station, N.J., 1999. Chapter 161.

2. TC Dixon et al. N Engl J Med 1999 Sep 9;341(11):815-826.

3. F Charatan BMJ 2000 Oct 21;321(7267):980.

4. The Merck Manual, 7th edition, by M. H. Beers et al., Whitehouse   Station, N.J., 1999. Chapter 43.

5. JR Zunt and CM Marra  Neurol Clinics Vol.17, No.4,1999: 675-689.

6. The Merck Manual, 7th edition, by M. H. Beers et al., Whitehouse   Station, N.J., 1999. Chapter 162.

7. LE Chapman : Antivir Ther 1999; 4(4): 211-19.

8. HW Cho: Vaccine 1999 Jun 4; 17(20-21): 2569-2575.

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10. SP Fisher-Hoch et al. J Virol 2000 Aug; 74(15): 6777-6783.

11. Mandell: Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 5th ed., ©   2000 Churchill Livingstone, Inc.

12. Goldman: Cecil Textbook of Medicine, 21st ed., Copyright © 2000   W. B. Saunders Company

13. PE Sax: Infect DisClinics of N America Vol.15, No 2 (June 2001):   433-455.

14. The 50th Annual St. Paul’s Hospital Continuing Medical Education Conference for Primary Physicians, Nov. 16 – 19, 2004.

15. David Heymann, MD, Editor: Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, 18th Edition, 2004, American Public Health Association.

16. Suzanne Somers: “Breakthrough” Eight Steps to Wellness– Life-altering Secrets from Today’s Cutting-edge Doctors”, Crown Publishers, 2008

Last modified: March 17, 2023

This outline is only a teaching aid to patients and should stimulate you to ask the right questions when seeing your doctor. However, the responsibility of treatment stays in the hands of your doctor and you.