What Is Viral Hepatitis?

Viral hepatitis is an infection that causes liver inflammation and damage. Inflammation is swelling that occurs when tissues of the body become injured or infected. Inflammation can damage organs. Researchers have discovered several different viruses that cause hepatitis, including hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E.

Hepatitis A and hepatitis E typically spread through contact with food or water that has been contaminated by an infected person’s stool. People may also get hepatitis E by eating undercooked pork, deer, or shellfish.

Hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and hepatitis D spread through contact with an infected person’s blood. Hepatitis B and D may also spread through contact with other body fluids. This contact can occur in many ways, including sharing drug needles or having unprotected sex.

The hepatitis A and E viruses typically cause only acute, or short-term, infections. In an acute infection, your body is able to fight off the infection and the virus goes away.

The hepatitis B, C, and D viruses can cause acute and chronic, or long-lasting, infections. Chronic hepatitis occurs when your body isn’t able to fight off the hepatitis virus and the virus does not go away. Chronic hepatitis can lead to complications such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. Early diagnosis and treatment of chronic hepatitis can prevent or lower your chances of developing these complications.

When doctors can’t find the cause of a person’s hepatitis, they may call this condition non-A–E hepatitis or hepatitis X. Experts think that unknown viruses other than hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E may cause some cases of hepatitis. Researchers are working to identify these viruses.

Although non-A–E hepatitis is most often acute, it can become chronic.

May 2017
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This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings through its clearinghouses and education programs to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.

The NIDDK would like to thank:
Raymond Chung, M.D., Massachusetts General Hospital