The liver is the body’s second-largest organ next to the skin and performs several essential functions in the body. Hepatitis is a viral infection of this organ and affects it in many different ways. Depending on the individual, and what type of hepatitis they have contracted, it can be severe or chronic; in turn, the symptoms and potential complications can vary from ordinary to life-threatening. The three main types of hepatitis are A, B, and C:
- Hepatitis A is usually contracted through food or drink. There is a low risk of long-term liver damage associated with hepatitis A, and it usually resolves itself on its own.
- Hepatitis B is generally contracted through sex, intravenous drug use, or bodily fluids. It can be severe but normally lasts no longer than six months. If left untreated, hepatitis B can be long-term, and sometimes lead to long-term complications such as organ failure and liver cancer.
- Hepatitis C is contracted through the blood and is typically spread through intravenous drug use. Hepatitis C always starts with an acute phase. Over time, the infection may resolve itself, or develop into a chronic condition, which can cause damage to the liver.
Two additional types of hepatitis are D and E. They are considered minor infections because D only develops when a patient has already had hepatitis B, and hepatitis E rarely occurs in America.
Depending on the severity of the infection, or how far the disease has progressed, patients may experience any of the following symptoms of chronic hepatitis:
- Abdominal pain
- Light-colored stool
- Dark urine
- Mild fever
- Muscle and/or joint aches
- Loss of appetite
Patients could be infected for years before they know that they have chronic hepatitis B or C, due to the initial lack of symptoms. This is problematic because it means that the liver could have sustained considerable damage, such as cirrhosis (scarring). Even acute hepatitis has been known to pass without any apparent symptoms.
The method of treatment that a physician will recommend depends on the type of hepatitis that a patient has:
- Hepatitis A has no specific medication and usually resolves itself within six months without causing any damage to the liver. Instead of medicine, a physician will likely focus on managing symptoms such as nausea and fever; patients suffering from hepatitis A also need to make sure they are getting enough rest.
- Hepatitis B, even when acute, is often manageable through rest, hydration, and proper dietary nutrition. Chronic hepatitis B may be treated with antiviral medication, along with close monitoring of the liver for signs of damage or disease.
- Hepatitis C will need to be treated with antiviral medication. This medication will clear up the virus in around eight to twelve weeks. If the liver has already sustained severe damage, a physician may recommend an organ transplant. The transplant itself won’t cure hepatitis C, but the antiviral drugs will likely be effective in curing hepatitis C post-transplant.