Hepatitis can make you feel as if you have the flu, but it’s a completely different disease. Flu is caused by viruses that attack your lungs and respiratory system; hepatitis is a liver disease. Some forms of hepatitis get better on their own. But others can inflict serious liver damage, and may even leave you needing a new liver.
Several different viruses—named the hepatitis A, B, C, D and E viruses—can cause hepatitis. Researchers believe others might cause the disease as well. These viruses attack your liver and keep it from working right. This can make you feel tired and sick to your stomach. You could get a fever, lose your appetite or have stomach pain, diarrhea, dark yellow urine or light-colored stools. You may even develop yellowish eyes and skin.
All the hepatitis viruses can cause acute, or short-term, hepatitis. Some can also cause chronic hepatitis, in which the infection lasts a long time, sometimes for your whole life. Chronic hepatitis can eventually lead to scarring of the liver tissue, liver failure and liver cancer.
You can’t live without a functioning liver. The liver clears poisons from your blood and helps control infections. It also makes proteins involved in blood clotting and the bile that helps you absorb fats and vitamins. While the liver can heal itself to some extent, repeated or extensive damage can overwhelm it.
Different hepatitis viruses spread in different ways. Hepatitis A, the most common, is spread through food or water contaminated by feces from a person who has the virus. Hepatitis B, the next most common type, is spread through contact with an infected person’s blood, semen or other body fluid. Hepatitis C and D are spread through contact with an infected person’s blood. Hepatitis E spreads the same way as hepatitis A does, but is not common in the U.S.
A vaccine for hepatitis A first became available in 1995, and hepatitis A rates in the U.S. have declined by 89% since then. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for children ages 12- to 23-months old as well as for adults at high risk for infection.
There’s also a vaccine for hepatitis B. All infants and unvaccinated children, adolescents and at-risk adults should get it.
If you do get hepatitis, several medications are available to treat hepatitis B and C, and other drugs are being developed and evaluated. Most people with hepatitis A get well on their own after a few weeks. By young adulthood, most who get acute hepatitis B infections also recover on their own. Infected newborns, however, are more likely to progress to chronic hepatitis B.
NIH continues to support research into the nature and transmission of the hepatitis viruses, as well as new treatments and methods of prevention. In the meantime, the best way to prevent hepatitis is to reduce your risk of being exposed to these viruses. If you suspect you might have hepatitis, see your doctor for a blood test.
While there are treatments for some types of hepatitis, it is still a potentially dangerous disease. To prevent it:
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