Last updated 17 April 2022
Symptoms and Causative Agent
Hepatitis is a general term for inflammation of the liver, which may result from infectious or non-infectious causes. Viruses responsible for many cases of infectious hepatitis include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, hepatitis D, and hepatitis E. Hepatitis A and B are the only hepatitis viruses for which vaccines are currently available in the United States (although immunity for hepatitis B also confers immunity for hepatitis D--sometimes known as delta hepatitis).
The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a partly double-stranded DNA virus in the hepadnavirus family. The hepatitis A virus (HAV) is a single-stranded RNA virus in the Picornavirus family. Both viruses, though structurally unrelated, infect and replicate primarily in liver cells.
The symptoms of acute hepatitis A infection are identical to those of hepatitis B infection. Early symptoms are headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, rash, body aches and pains, and dark colored urine. Following this phase, jaundice (yellow-colored skin and whites of the eyes), light stools, and liver pain may appear.
The hepatitis B virus is spread via contact with infectious body fluids (namely, blood, saliva, and semen). It can be spread sexually, or through sharing injection drug use equipment, needle sticks, birth to an infected mother, contact with open sores or wounds of an infected person, and sharing razors or toothbrushes with an infected person. While saliva can be a means of transmission in bites, it is unlikely that kissing is a viable means of transmitting the virus.
The fecal-oral route is the main transmission pathway for the hepatitis A virus. This may occur through person-to-person contact or by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. HAV is not known to be spread via saliva. In rare cases, it has been spread via contaminated blood transfusions.
Both viruses are extremely hardy and can remain infectious on surfaces for more than seven days at room temperature, although this is unlikely to account for infection transmission in most cases.
Treatment and Care
No specific treatments exist for acute hepatitis A and B infections. Rather, they are treated with supportive care, such as rest, fluid management, and pain and fever relief.
See below for a discussion of treatment for chronic hepatitis B infection.
Both hepatitis A and hepatitis B infection can have immediate, deadly consequences. Approximately 1% of people with acute HBV infections will suffer fulminant hepatitis, or acute liver failure. HAV infection may also, though less commonly than HBV infection, lead to fulminant hepatitis. Up to 90% of patients with fulminant hepatitis will die.
Up to 95% of adults infected with acute HBV infection recover and do not become chronically (permanently) infected, although they can infect other people during the acute phase via transmission of body secretions. The others become chronically infected—and can infect others for a much longer time (in some cases for many years)—and are at risk for serious liver disease. The picture is different for children: infants and children who become infected with hepatitis B are much more likely than adults to become chronically infected and hence to develop serious, late complications.
Chronic infection with HBV may lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. HAV infection does not lead to chronic infection or chronic liver disease.
Treatment for patients with chronic HBV infection may include interferon therapy, which reduces or eliminates the virus in some patients. Interferon blocks viral replication and enhances the body’s immune response to infected cells. Because interferon is an injectable medicine and has some potentially serious side effects, some patients may be advised to delay or avoid interferon treatment or to use one of the several oral medicines, such as lamivudine, adefovir or entecavir. Treatment is always administered and monitored by a clinician familiar with viral hepatitis.
Hepatitis B Vaccines
The FDA has licensed several hepatitis B vaccines for use in the United States, including several combination vaccines. It has been part of the routine childhood immunization schedule since 1994. Some parents object to vaccinating their newborns against a disease they mistakenly think is spread only via sexual contact and IV drug use. However, newborns and young children are at risk for hepatitis B infection. Apart from maternal transmission of hepatitis B to a newborn, hepatitis B transmission has been reported in school and daycare settings among children. The vaccine contains no live virus and is safe even for people with reduced immune function.
Hepatitis A Vaccines
Several vaccines for hepatitis A are available in the United States, including several combination vaccines. It has been part of the routine childhood immunization schedule since 1994. Hepatitis vaccination is recommended at age 1, with a booster shot several months later. For those who have not had hepatitis A and have not already been vaccinated, travel to developing countries can be a trigger for pre-departure hepatitis A vaccine. It is important to allow at least two weeks before departure for vaccination. The benefits of a single vaccine administration should last several months, but getting a second dose will confer much longer-term immunity. The vaccine contains no live virus and is safe even for people with reduced immune function.
Hepatitis E Vaccines
A recombinant hepatitis E vaccine was licensed in China in 2011 for use in people ages 16-65 years old. It is recommended for those at high risk of hepatitis E infection.
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