Infections from viruses (such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C), bacteria, or parasites
Liver damage from alcohol or poison
Medicines, such as an overdose of acetaminophen
Liver disease can also be caused by inherited disorders such as cystic fibrosis or hemochromatosis, a condition that involves having too much iron in your body.
Other causes include Wilson disease, a disorder in which the body retains too much copper.
Hepatitis may start and get better quickly. It may also become a long-term condition. In some cases, hepatitis may lead to liver damage, liver failure, cirrhosis, or even liver cancer.
There are several factors that can affect how severe the condition is. These may include the cause of the liver damage and any illnesses you have. Hepatitis A, for example, is most often short-term and does not lead to chronic liver problems.
The symptoms of hepatitis include:
Pain or bloating in the belly area
Dark urine and pale or clay-colored stools
Low grade fever
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
Loss of appetite
Nausea and vomiting
You may not have symptoms when first infected with hepatitis B or C. You can still develop liver failure later. If you have any risk factors for either type of hepatitis, you should be tested often.
Exams and Tests
You will have a physical exam to look for:
Enlarged and tender liver
Fluid in the abdomen (ascites)
Yellowing of the skin
You may have lab tests to diagnose and monitor your condition, including:
Ultrasound of the abdomen
Autoimmune blood markers
Blood tests to diagnose Hepatitis A, B, or C
Liver function tests
Liver biopsy to check for liver damage (may be needed in some cases)
Paracentesis (if fluid is in your abdomen)
Your health care provider will talk to you about treatment options. Treatments will vary, depending on the cause of your liver disease. You may need to eat a high-calorie diet if you are losing weight.
There are support groups for people with all types of hepatitis. These groups can help you learn about the latest treatments and how to cope with having the disease.
The outlook for hepatitis will depend on what is causing the liver damage.
Complications may include:
Permanent liver damage, called cirrhosis
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Seek care immediately if you:
Have symptoms from too much acetaminophen or other medicines. You may need to have your stomach pumped
Have bloody or tarry stools
Are confused or delirious
Call your provider if:
You have any symptoms of hepatitis or believe that you have been exposed to hepatitis A, B, or C.
You cannot keep food down due to excessive vomiting. You may need to receive nutrition through a vein (intravenously).
You feel sick and have travelled to Asia, Africa, South America, or Central America.
Talk to your provider about having a vaccine to prevent hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
Steps for preventing the spread of hepatitis B and C from one person to another include:
Avoid sharing personal items, such as razors or toothbrushes.
DO NOT share drug needles or other drug equipment (such as straws for snorting drugs).
Clean blood spills with a mixture of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts water.
DO NOT get tattoos or body piercings with instruments that have not been cleaned properly.
To reduce your risk of spreading or catching hepatitis A:
Always wash your hands well after using the restroom, and when you come in contact with an infected person's blood, stools, or other bodily fluid.
Takyar V, Ghany MG. Hepatitis A, B, D, and E. In: Kellerman RD, Rakel DP, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2020. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:226-233.
Young J-A H, Ustun C. Infections in recipients of hematopoietic stem cell transplants. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 307.
Michael M. Phillips, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.