Hepatitis: What you need to know
Posted on 27 June 2017
Hepatitis is an intricate group of diseases that affects the liver. Our expert explains more about the diagnosis and treatment of this condition.
Hepatitis is the umbrella term for inflammation of the liver. It’s a complex set of diseases that vary in cause, symptoms and treatment. Some types of hepatitis could pass through your body and clear up without you experiencing any symptoms, and others are more permanent with more serious consequences.
Dr Delene Brink, a clinical microbiologist at Mediclinic George, explains that there are different types of hepatitis. ‘Viral hepatitis is caused by some viruses that primarily target the liver, including hepatitis A, B, C, D and E viruses.
‘However, hepatitis is not always caused by a virus. Other types include auto-immune hepatitis and drug-induced hepatitis,’ Dr Brink adds. Some medicines or supplements in harmful doses can cause drug-induced hepatitis.
The most common type of hepatitis in South Africa is hepatitis B. According to the South African Medical Journal, it remains a significant yet preventable health issue in South Africa.
The hepatitis B virus can be transmitted sexually, from mother to baby or through exposure to blood from a needle or sharp object, says Dr Brink.
So what exactly does a hepatitis B diagnosis mean for a patient? Dr Brink says three things could happen:
- The patient’s immune response will clear the virus without any treatment.
- Some patients develop chronic hepatitis, and although they won’t show any symptoms they are still carriers of the virus.
- A small percentage of patients may develop cirrhosis or hepatocellular carcinoma (a type of liver cancer) years after their diagnosis.
Early symptoms may include general discomfort, joint pain, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, stomach ache, a yellowish colour, and possibly a mild fever. It’s important to avoid alcohol completely should you be exhibiting these symptoms.
Hepatitis B and C are caused by two different viruses. The hepatitis C virus commonly causes only a mild infection initially, but the risk of chronic infection, cirrhosis and liver cancer is much higher than with a hepatitis B infection, says Dr Brink. Hepatitis C becomes chronic in most cases, and patients may not have any symptoms for 20 to 30 years before developing cirrhosis.
There are currently no treatments that cure chronic hepatitis B and C, and Dr Brink explains that available treatments are designed to stop the infection progressing into something more serious.
Testing and prevention
Anyone who suspects they might have been exposed to hepatitis B or C through unprotected sex or a needle (either shared or accidental) should get tested as soon as possible. It’s a simple blood test that your doctor can arrange for you. There is also a hepatitis B vaccine available that can prevent infection.