The liver, located below the right side of the rib cage, is a crucial organ because it metabolizes food and rids the body of toxins and alcohol. Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, of which there are different types. Your gastroenterologist can help determine the cause of liver inflammation whether it be from genetic, viral, infectious, or medication-induced causes.
If the liver is infected with the hepatitis B or C virus, your gastroenterologist will determine if you need treatment. Both viruses are contagious, transmitted by blood or body fluids.
Hepatitis B is a serious virus but it generally does not last long among adults. In the cases of acute hepatitis B, the body’s immune system fights off the disease within six months and the patient becomes immune (there also is a vaccine). Chronic hepatitis B, which develops among 5% of adults and 95% of babies with the virus, is longer-lasting and can cause liver scarring and damage, which requires monitoring by your gastroenterologist and possible medications.
Hepatitis C is the most common form of hepatitis. It is carried, and largely transmitted, in the blood. Acute hepatitis C usually lasts less than six months, while the chronic form could linger for years or last a lifetime, putting the patient at risk of liver scarring, or cirrhosis. Chronic hepatitis C affects nearly 3.5 million people in the U.S. Those born between 1945 and 1965 are more likely to have the virus because there were no screening methods or protocols to check blood during that time. There is not yet a vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are treatment options available, which your gastroenterologist can provide.
While hepatitis B and C can cause the liver to swell (inflame), not everyone experiences evident signs of the virus. Many of the symptoms that do occur are similar to those of the flu, including:
- Abdominal pain, particularly on the right side below the ribs
- Muscle and joint aches
- Changes in the color of urine or stool
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
If the virus becomes chronic, your doctor may order:
- A biopsy – Removing and examining a small sample of liver tissue to determine the presence and degree of swelling.
- An ultrasound – An imaging technique that uses sound waves to generate an internal picture, in this case of the liver.
- FibroScan – Also called transient elastography, this procedure is an enhanced ultrasound that measures the stiffness of the liver (fibrosis or scarring).
Once a person is infected with hepatitis B or C, the patient will need to wait for the body to rid itself of the virus. There are, however, measures that can ease the symptoms and improve overall body health:
- Medications: Chronic hepatitis B and C can be treated with a number of drugs that lower the amount of virus in the blood. These drugs may be prescribed separately or in combination. In cases of hepatitis B, the doctor also can administer the vaccine and a hepatitis B immune globulin, to boost the immune system. Antiviral drugs also can help prevent hepatitis B reactivation.
- Avoid alcohol and certain medications: The liver has difficulty processing some medications, such as acetaminophens, and alcohol can cause or exacerbate liver damage.
The following resources may be helpful:
American Liver Foundation (hepatitis B)
American Liver Foundation (hepatitis C)
American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases