‘Hep’ means liver and ‘itis’ means inflammation of, so hepatitis literally means inflammation of the liver.
Your liver is a large organ – it’s your body’s waste disposal system. It also regulates metabolism, stores iron and vitamins such as folate and B12 and produces proteins and bile, a liquid that’s needed to digest fats. If your liver doesn’t work properly, the result can be serious illness and it can be life-threatening, too.
The causes of hepatitis can be due to chemicals, alcohol, drug use and viruses such as the yellow fever virus and the virus that causes glandular fever.
There are seven forms of hepatitis – some types don’t cause serious health problems but others can result in chronic (long-term problems), scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and even liver cancer.
Here’s our guide to what you need to know about the different types of hepatitis.
What are the symptoms?
Short-term (acute) hepatitis may not have any symptoms at all and if there are symptoms, they might be pretty non-specific i.e. they can be connected with many conditions. For example, nausea, tiredness, abdominal pain, muscle and joint pain, getting bruised easily, a high temperature (fever) of 38 degrees Celsius, dark coloured urine and light bowel movements are signs of hepatitis.
Long-term (chronic) hepatitis may not have any obvious symptoms, either, until the liver stops working properly and liver failure results. Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) is also a sign of late stage liver failure. Hepatitis may only be picked up during blood tests.
If you have any persistent or troublesome symptoms that you think could be caused by hepatitis, go and see your GP immediately.
The seven types of hepatitis are:
- Hepatitis A
Caused by the hepatitis A virus, this infection is caught by consuming food or drink contaminated with the bowel movements of an infected person. It is most common in countries with poor sanitation. This type of hepatitis usually passes in a few months. But, it can be severe and even life-threatening.
If you’re travelling overseas, book in before your trip to see your GP, who may recommend a vaccination.
- Hepatitis B
Caused by the hepatitis B virus, infection is spread via the blood of an infected person (e.g. through shared injection needles).
Most adults can fight off the infection in two months or so. But infection in children may be long-term and can lead to liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Treatment may involve antiviral medications. If you are in a high-risk group, for example, if you are a health care worker or you inject drugs – your GP may recommend vaccination.
- Hepatitis C
Caused by the hepatitis C virus, this is usually spread via blood-to-blood contact with an infected person (e.g. via shared needles or through poor health care practices). Symptoms of infection may be similar to a bout of flu and many people don’t know that they are infected.
Around one in four people can fight off the infection but most people will develop chronic hepatitis C[i], which can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure. Treatment is usually antiviral medication but currently there is no vaccination.
- Hepatitis D
Caused by the hepatitis D virus, this infection only affects people who already have hepatitis B. It is usually spread through blood-to-blood or sexual contact. It is not common in Australia[ii].
Long-term hepatitis D infection can increase the risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer. Although there is no vaccine for hepatitis D, your GP might suggest the hepatitis B vaccine to protect you from getting hepatitis D.
- Hepatitis E
Common in developing countries, this type of hepatitis is caused by the hepatitis E virus; infection is usually caught via consuming food and drink contaminated with bowel movements from an infected person. Generally mild and short-lived, the infection doesn’t require any treatment. However, for a small number of people, it can be serious (such as those with a suppressed immune system) and it can become chronic.
There’s no vaccine to protect against hepatitis E but you can reduce your risk by being very careful with food and drinks when travelling to parts of the world with poor sanitation. If you are pregnant, you should not travel to areas where there is a lot of hepatitis E, especially during the last three months of pregnancy.
- Alcoholic hepatitis
Caused by excessive alcohol consumption over a number of years, many people who have it don’t know that they do because it usually doesn’t have any symptoms. However, it can be detected by a blood test (liver function test). Your liver can usually recover if you stop drinking alcohol. But if you don’t, the result can be liver failure or liver cancer.
- Autoimmune hepatitis
Like other autoimmune conditions, autoimmune hepatitis occurs when the cells of the body start attacking itself. Treatment involves medication to stop the attack. More research needs to be done to find out why it happens and if anything can be done to prevent autoimmune hepatitis.
For more information, contact:
- Your GP
- National Hepatitis information line on 1800 437 222
- DirectLine (for information about where to get clean needles and syringes for drug users) on 1800 888 236
- Immunise Australia information line on 1800 671 811.
[i] NHS Choices. Hepatitis. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Hepatitis/Pages/Introduction.aspx#hep-C