What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis virus

Hepatitis is a diseased condition of liver due to chronic and acute inflammation.  It can be two types — acute and chronic.

In acute hepatitis, the condition is mostly self-limiting. After a few week, the condition passes away without much medication. The damage to the liver may or may not be there. Most people make a full recovery and then remain immune from further HAV infections.

But in chronic hepatitis, the condition of liver erodes day by day and ends in permanent scarring. If not treated well, the acute condition progresses to fibrosis, cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Causes of Hepatitis

There are two main causes — toxic intakes and viral infection specific to the liver.

Our liver plays a very important role in food digestion and assimilation. It’s the “Chemical Laboratory”  of our body. If any poison or toxins enter our body, the liver is the organ to save us. It is designed to break down poisonous substances into manageable chemicals and throw them safely out of our body. In this way drugs, alcohol, toxic substances are prevented from damaging our body.

Now, about the viruses that can cause hepatitis.

There are 5 different viruses that can cause hepatitis. They are referred to as hepatitis virus type A, B, C, D and E. Hepatitis virus types B and C cause chronic hepatitis in hundreds of millions of people. They are the common cause of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Hepatitis virus A and E cause acute hepatitis. They enter our body through ingestion of contaminated food or water, infected body fluid, and other plant and animal toxins. Receipt of contaminated blood transfusion, invasive medical procedures using contaminated equipment are some of the other modes of transmission of hepatitis viruses. Hepatitis B can transmit from mother to baby during gestation and at birth, from a close family member or relative to the child, and also by intimate sexual contact. This is the reason, Hepatitis is  considered an STD.

Hepatitis symptoms

Hepatitis symptoms are very mild, almost imperceptible, in the first stage, when there is no major damage to the liver.

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Mild to high fever — 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Feeling of being unwell
  • Headaches related to indigestion
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin as in Jaundice

Symptoms of chronic hepatitis can include:

  • Feeling unusually tired all the time
  • Depression
  • Chronic Jaundice
  • A general sense of feeling unwell

What are the different hepatitis viruses?

So far, medical research has identified 5 unique hepatitis viruses, ranging from hepatitis A to E. Primarily, all of them cause diseased conditions of the liver, but that’s not all. In chronic conditions, they can affect other areas of our body.

Hepatitis A virus, HAV, primarily enters our body through the alimentary canal, through consumption of contaminated water or food. Certain types of raw or uncooked food are the carriers of this virus too. The virus remains present in the feces of infected persons thereafter, but gradually it can permeate to other parts of the body. Even organs pertaining to urinary and reproductive functions are infected in chronic conditions. So, HAV can also spread through sexual contact.

In some cases of HAV the patient makes a full recovery after a few weeks, but in some cases, the condition worsens and becomes life-threatening. With better living conditions such as clean living with better sanitation, clean food and drinking water can keep an HAV infection away. We have a vaccine for HAV that can prevent the disease altogether.

Hepatitis B virus, HBV, is transmitted through exposure to infected body fluids such as infective blood, blood plasma, and semen.  HBV causes congenital hepatitis, mostly from mother to child. It can transmit through needle pricks infected with HBV. HBV also has an effective vaccine.

Hepatitis C virus, HCV,  mainly transmits through infected blood or blood-related products. The reasons of transmission are same as HBV but mostly limited to blood and blood-related infections. Transmission through sex or semen is very rare, but can’t be ruled out. So far, there is no vaccine for HCV.

Hepatitis D virus, HDV, can infect people who are already infected with HBV. If somebody is infected with both HDV and HBV, he is in a very serious health condition. The outcome is very unpredictable.  HDV doesn’t have a separate vaccine, it can be protected with the same vaccine used for HBV prevention.

Hepatitis E virus, HEV,  transmits through contaminated food and water,  just as HAV.  HEV is the predominant cause of hepatitis outbreaks in developed countries, but developing countries are not free from its infection. HEV has a preventive, a safe vaccine but, this is not yet widely available for all.