Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver cells due to a viral infection of the liver or injury caused by a chemical toxin.
What are the symptoms?
In the early stages it may cause flu-like symptoms such as general weakness, loss of appetite, diarrhoea and muscle aches. If it progresses the chemicals normally secreted by the liver build up in the blood causing jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and eyes), foul breath and a bitter taste. The urine turns dark and stools become clay coloured. There can be abdominal pain. Although many cases of hepatitis resolve with treatment, the disease can sometimes lead to death.
What causes Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is caused by many viruses. The most common being:
Hepatitis A virus- this is most common in children and is present in the
stools of infected individuals. When someone eats food that is contaminated with
HAV-infected stool, the virus passes into the body. Hepatitis spreads easily in
unsanitary living conditions and contaminated water, milks and foods.
Hepatitis B virus- is also called “serum hepatitis”. HBV spreads through
infected body fluids such as blood, saliva and breast milk. Infection occurs
through contaminated blood transfusion, shared contaminated needles or
Hepatitis C virus usually develops after a contaminated blood transfusion
but may also spread through sexual contact.
How do you know if you have Hepatitis?
The symptoms usually develop over a period of several days. Children who are
infected often have no symptoms. The symptoms may be:
Yellowing of the eyes and dark urine.
General tiredness and poor appetite.
Nausea, vomiting, fever and stomach ache.
A person may spread HAV
from about one week before symptoms appear and during the first week of
symptoms. Persons with no symptoms can also spread the virus. Unlike Hepatitis B
and C, Hepatitis A causes no long term liver damage. Having had the disease
produces lifelong immunity from future HAV infection.
What liver tests diagnose the infection?
Blood is taken for liver function tests. The bilirubin is raised and the liver enzymes such as ALT (asparate aminotransferase) are also increased.
The levels of other enzymes AST (asparate aminotransferase) and Gamma GT also increase in the presence of a liver infection. A high bilirubin content (a secretion of the liver in the blood) results in the yellowing of skin and urine.
How can you prevent Hepatitis?
Good personal hygiene and proper sanitation can help prevent the infection. Toilets and sinks need to be cleaned with antiseptic solutions. Hepatitis B is contagious and its main routes of infection are contaminated blood transfusions, shared needles for drug injections and sexual contacts. Use of vaccines greatly decreases the incidence of this infection.
Hepatitis C infection may pass from mother to foetus during pregnancy. A great deal of awareness and caution along with the doctor’s advice is required to prevent this infection.
What is the treatment?
There are no specific treatments for the acute symptoms of viral hepatitis. Doctors recommend bed rests, a healthy diet, avoidance of alcoholic beverages and fatty foods. Medications may include vitamins and pills to reduce nausea and vomiting. Care must be taken to avoid any drug like contraceptive pills that may further cause injury to the liver cells.