Viral Hepatitis

Inflammation of the liver is known as hepatitis.  Sudden inflammation of the liver is known as acute hepatitis. If the liver remains inflamed for months or years, this is known as chronic (long-term) hepatitis.

Viral hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that’s due to a viral infection.  It is is most commonly caused by hepatitis A, B, C, and E.

Types of viral hepatitis 

These can be picked up in a number of ways. Most people get them by eating food or drinking water which has been contaminated with infected faeces as a result of poor hygiene or inadequate cooking. Less commonly, they can be transmitted through cuts in the skin or mucous membranes - sharing razor blades, toothbrushes, or needles if injecting drugs are common risk factors. Hepatitis A can be also passed on by having unprotected sex with a person who already has the virus, usually between men who have sex with men. The hepatitis caused by HAV and HEV is usually mild, and doesn’t require treatment, although hepatitis E can occasionally be serious in those with a weakened immune system.  A vaccine is available to prevent hepatitis A - people with cirrhosis and those visiting developing countries should be vaccinated. There is not yet a commercially available vaccine for HEV. Find out more about hepatitis E here.

Hepatitis B is the most common cause of viral hepatitis worldwide, due to either the infection being passed on from mother to baby at birth or becoming infected in early childhood. Sexual transmission and exposure to other body fluids are also common risk factors. In the UK, hepatitis B is most commonly transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids – sharing needles to inject drugs or having unprotected sex with someone who already has the virus, for instance. It’s not spread through food or water or ‘casual’ contact, such as holding hands, coughing or sneezing. A vaccine is available to prevent it.

Further info here: Hepatitis B - British Liver Trust

This is passed on via contaminated blood. Common risk factors include sharing contaminated needles during intravenous drug use, sharing personal items contaminated with blood such as razors, or having unprotected sex with someone who already has the virus. It can be transmitted from mother to baby during birth. Previously people have been infected by blood products although these are now rigorously tested in the UK and are safe. Currently, there is no vaccine available but there are very effective treatments available for hepatitis C, so it’s important to get tested if you have ever been at risk.

Find out more about Hepatitis C

You can only get hepatitis D if you already have hepatitis B, as hepatitis D needs the hepatitis B virus to survive in the body. It is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact or sexual contact. It’s possible to become infected with both hepatitis B and D at the same time, or to become infected with hepatitis D at a later date.

Having both hepatitis B and D is called co-infection, and chronic (long-term) infection with both increases the risk of developing serious liver diseases such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. If you have been diagnosed with hepatitis B you should be tested for hepatitis D with a separate blood test that looks specifically for anti-hepatitis D antibodies in your blood. If these are found, it means you have been exposed to the hepatitis D virus. There is no vaccine for hepatitis D but if you have been vaccinated against hepatitis B this also protects you from hepatitis D.

Find out more here: Hepatitis E - British Liver Trust

Left untreated, some types of viral hepatitis can badly damage the liver, causing scarring. This scar tissue is known as cirrhosis, and over time it can stop the liver from working properly. In severe cases, life-threatening conditions such as liver failure (where the liver loses most, or all, of its functions) or liver cancer can occur.

It’s very important to get tested if you think you may have come into contact with the infection because there are highly effective treatments available that can help prevent further damage to the liver. Speak to your GP, who can physically examine you and arrange a blood test to investigate further.