The liver is an organ whose role is to manage the following bodily functions:

  • filter and detoxify chemicals in what you eat, breathe, and absorb through your skin
  • store vitamins, minerals, sugars, and iron
  • regulates fat stores and controls production and release of cholesterol
  • destroy poisonous substances
  • changes the food you eat into energy, clotting factors, immune factors, hormones, and proteins
  • break down drugs and medications

Inflammation of the liver is called hepatitis. The inflammation usually produces swelling, tenderness and sometimes permanent damage. Alcohol, drugs, chemicals, and viral infections are all included in the causes of hepatitis. If the inflammation of the liver lasts at least 6 months or longer, it is considered chronic hepatitis. There are five types of viruses that cause viral hepatitis:

  • Viral hepatitis A: May be called “Infectious Hepatitis”. It is spread by eating food or drinking water contaminated with human feces. This form is rarely life-threatening.
  • Viral hepatitis B: May be called “Serum Hepatitis”. It is spread by sexual contact, mother to child through birth or soon after, contaminated blood transfusions, and needles. May lead to cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Viral hepatitis C: Previously known as “non-A, non-B Hepatitis”. This is the most common form of viral hepatitis. Many people don’t know how they acquire hepatitis C, but it can be spread through blood transfusions and contaminated needles.
  • Viral hepatitis D: Most often found in IV drug users who are carriers of hepatitis B virus. This type of viral hepatitis is spread only in the presence of the hepatitis B virus and is transmitted in the same manner.
  • Viral hepatitis E: Similar to hepatitis A. It is rarely life threatening and is found primarily in people who live in the Indian Ocean area.

Acute vs. Chronic Hepatitis

Acute hepatitis may be mild or severe and is the initial infection. Hepatitis A and E do not develop into a chronic form of hepatitis. Hepatitis is considered chronic if the infection lasts for 6 months or longer. Hepatitis B, C, and D can produce both acute and chronic episodes. Chronic hepatitis B and C are considered major health problems.

Viral Hepatitis Symptoms

Many times there are no symptoms present or the symptoms are vague and similar to flu-like illnesses. Fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, muscle and joint aches, and changes in the color of urine and stools may develop in people with viral hepatitis. Jaundice, which is a condition causing the skin and whites of the eyes to turn yellow, may develop in some people with viral hepatitis.

What to Expect

If you have been exposed or think you have viral hepatitis, it is important to schedule an urgent appointment with your doctor. Your doctor will take a detailed history, complete a physical exam, or order blood tests to determine diagnosis.

A liver biopsy, procedure by which a needle is used to remove a small piece of liver for analysis under a microscope, is done to confirm the diagnosis. A liver biopsy is also used to determine the degree of damage the virus has caused.

Hospitalization is usually not required unless a person cannot keep down food or liquids over a period of time.


Treatment is determined by which type of hepatitis virus is present. People with chronic viral hepatitis are encouraged to:

  • complete a thorough review of medical history with doctor
  • exercise, as able depending on fatigue
  • avoid alcoholic beverages during acute stages
  • eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet


Those with hepatitis A or E are not to prepare or handle food that will be eaten by others. People with hepatitis B, C, or D are not restricted on food handling.


  • Hepatitis A & E
    • vaccine is available for hepatitis A
    • good sanitation and personal hygiene
    • boil water if contamination is suspected
    • if sanitation is in question, food should be cooked well and fruits peeled
    • avoid consuming shell fish from contaminated waters
    • for those who are in the household or in close contact with someone infected with hepatitis A and E, wash hands, eating utensils, bedding and clothing in soap and water
  • Hepatitis B
    • vaccine is available for hepatitis B
    • avoid exposure to blood or body fluids
    • use condoms if having sexual contact with an infected person
    • do not share scissors, razors, nail files, toothbrushes, or needles
    • immunize all newborns born to infected mothers at the time of birth
    • follow any treatment plan prescribed by your doctor
  • Hepatitis C
    • blood banks are required to screen all blood
    • avoid exposure to blood or body fluids
    • do not share needles
    • follow any treatment plan prescribed by your doctor