What is hepatitis?

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Hepatitis: Overview

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. It's caused most often by a virus. It can also be caused by heavy drinking over a long time. Certain medicines can cause hepatitis. And some medicines can make it worse. When this condition is severe, the liver can't remove waste from the body or do its other jobs.

  • Hepatitis A is spread by food or water that has the virus. This type doesn't lead to long-term liver problems.
  • Hepatitis B is spread through infected blood, semen, or other body fluids during sex. It can be passed from mother to baby during childbirth. It's also spread by sharing needles to inject drugs. Most people who have it get better after 4 to 8 weeks. After you have had this virus, you will not get it again. If it stays in your body for a long time, it can cause serious liver damage.
  • Hepatitis C is spread by sharing needles to use drugs. It is sometimes spread through infected blood, semen, or other body fluids during sex. Most people who have this virus have a long-term infection. Sometimes it causes severe liver damage.
  • Hepatitis from alcohol use can lead to severe liver problems. If drinking is stopped before the liver is severely damaged, your liver may get better.
  • Some medicines can cause liver damage. These include over-the-counter and herbal medicines. The infection most often goes away when you stop taking the medicine. But this may not be the case if serious liver damage has already happened.
  • Hepatitis also can be caused when the immune system attacks the liver. This is called autoimmune hepatitis.

You can help your liver heal—or lower the chance of liver damage—by following your doctor's advice.


Hepatitis is a disease that causes inflammation of the liver and interferes with its normal function. Hepatitis can be caused by infection (usually by a virus), excessive alcohol use, medicine, or a problem with the immune system.

The three most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Viral hepatitis is contagious. All three types of viral hepatitis (A, B, and C) can be spread through contact with body fluids. Hepatitis A can also spread when people consume food or water contaminated by stool (feces) containing the virus.

Symptoms of hepatitis can last for weeks to months. They include:

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice).
  • Weight loss and lack of appetite.
  • Discomfort in the upper right abdomen.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Brownish urine.
  • Fatigue.

Some types of hepatitis can cause serious, long-term complications, such as severe and permanent liver damage.

How can you care for yourself when you have hepatitis?

  • Be safe with medicines. If your doctor prescribes antiviral medicine, take it exactly as directed. Do not stop or change a medicine without talking to your doctor first.
  • Lower your activity to match your energy.
  • Avoid alcohol for as long as your doctor says. Alcohol can make liver problems worse. Tell your doctor if you need help to quit. Counseling, support groups, and sometimes medicines can help you stay sober.
  • Make sure your doctor knows all the medicines you take. Do not take any new medicines unless your doctor says it is okay.
  • Follow your doctor's advice about your diet.
  • If you have itchy skin, keep cool, stay out of the sun. Try to wear cotton clothing. Talk to your doctor about medicines that can be used for itching. Follow the instructions on the label.

To prevent spreading hepatitis B or C

  • Tell the people you live with or have sex with about your illness as soon as you can.
  • Don't donate blood or blood products, organs, semen, or eggs (ova).
  • Stop all sexual activity or use latex condoms until your doctor tells you that you can no longer give the virus to others. Avoid anal contact with a sex partner while you are infected.
  • Don't share your personal items. These include razors, toothbrushes, towels, and nail files.
  • Tell your doctor, dentist, and anyone else who may come in contact with your blood about your illness.
  • If you are pregnant, tell the doctor who will deliver your baby about your illness. If you have hepatitis B, be sure your baby gets medicine to prevent infection. This should start right after birth.
  • Clean or carefully get rid of anything that has your blood on it. This includes clothing and sanitary pads.
  • Make sure to clean surfaces that have your blood or any other body fluid on them. Examples are semen and menstrual blood. Use a solution of bleach and water. To dilute household bleach, follow the directions on the label. Clean toilet seats, countertops, and floors.

To prevent hepatitis A

  • Always wash your hands after you use the bathroom. And be sure to wash them before you touch food.
  • If you have been exposed to someone who may have hepatitis A, ask your doctor about a shot of immune globulin. (This is also called gamma globulin.) It can help your body fight the infection.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.