Hepatitis is a medical term for inflammation of the liver.

The word hepatitis describes the inflammation of one of the body’s largest organs, the liver.

Hepatitis causes are multiple, but the most common cause is viruses, usually Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B (the most prevalent globally) or Hepatitis C. Less commonly, there are the Hepatitis D and Hepatitis E viruses.

Bacterial infection, alcohol, toxins (including drugs) and autoimmune disorders can also lead to hepatitis. Hepatitis A and E are spread via faeces, often in contaminated drinking water, while B, C and D spread via contact with an infected person’s blood or bodily fluids, making unprotected sex a common mechanism for hepatitis transmission. Hepatitis B and D can also be transmitted by infected mothers to their newborns.

While some cases of hepatitis may be mild, others can cause irreparable damage to the liver, which may then necessitate a liver transplant. Chronic viral hepatitis can lead to life-threatening liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.

What are its symptoms?

Hepatitis symptoms can vary in severity depending on the cause of the condition. People with Hepatitis A may be entirely asymptomatic, while it may take weeks or months for other types to show symptoms.

The following symptoms and signs should never be ignored:

  • Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Fever
  • Malaise
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dark-coloured urine
  • Bowel movements that are light in colour.

How is it diagnosed?

A hepatitis diagnosis usually involves a blood test, as well as an assessment of the patient’s symptoms and medical history. The blood test looks either for antigens or antibodies produced by the immune system in response to the virus. Liver enzyme levels will also be tested.

In some cases, further imaging tests may be carried out.

What are your treatment options?

Hepatitis treatment depends on the type involved and the severity of the condition.

Hepatitis A usually resolves itself without any treatment, but can lead to death albeit rarely.

Hepatitis B and C are both treatable with drugs but they don’t always eliminate the virus from the body, meaning that the patient has chronic hepatitis, which requires careful long-term management.

Treatment for non-viral hepatitis will depend on addressing the causative problem – for example, flushing any toxins contributing to the condition out of the body.

Can it be prevented?

The key to viral hepatitis prevention is vaccination. Hepatitis A and B are currently preventable with a vaccine, with the Hepatitis B vaccine falling under the Expanded Programme for Immunisation (EPI) for children in South Africa. This vaccine will also protect you from Hepatitis D.

Because Hepatitis A is generally milder, the vaccine is only given at request or at a doctor’s recommendation.

As there are not yet vaccines against Hepatitis C or E, it is important to take measures to ensure your wellbeing, such as only practising safe sex and not sharing personal items that may have come into contact with an infected individual’s blood.

What to do now
Book an appointment at your nearest Clicks Clinic for hepatitis vaccines. Call 0860 254 257 to book an appointment or visit Clicks Clinic online.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015