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Acute and Chronic Hepatitis

The term “hepato” refers to the liver and “itis” refers to “inflammation of.” The term hepatitis therefore means inflammation of the liver. This inflammation is most commonly caused by various hepatitis viruses or by medications. Viral hepatitis can be caused by type A (infectious hepatitis), B, C or D viruses. We have markers for type A, type B, type C and type D hepatitis viruses. Other hepatitis viruses exist which when we have markers for them will probably be called hepatitis E, F, etc.

Type A hepatitis is present in the stool of infected persons and can be transmitted when infected stool contaminates water or food and is ingested. Hepatitis B is most often spread by intravenous drug abuse (sharing infected needles), sexual intercourse (either heterosexual or homosexual) with infected persons, and blood transfusions (blood contaminated with hepatitis virus). Hepatitis C is most commonly transmitted by exposure to blood products. Type D hepatitis known as delta hepatitis occurs only in people who have had prior type B hepatitis.

When a person contracts viral hepatitis, the virus invades the liver and causes inflammation of the liver cells. On rare occasions, if it is a particularly severe form of hepatitis, a patient may die from acute hepatitis. In most situations, however, the body’s defense mechanisms will control the inflammation and after a period of time eliminate the virus. Then the liver will heal itself completely. This is particularly true of type A hepatitis, however, type B and type C hepatitis can progress to chronic hepatitis where there is ongoing inflammation in the liver.

There are two types of chronic hepatitis. One is called chronic persistent hepatitis in which the inflammation in the liver occurs in an ongoing fashion but does not result in the continued significant injury of liver cells. The other is chronic active or chronic aggressive hepatitis in which the continued inflammation results in the destruction of liver cells. A liver biopsy is frequently necessary for the physician to determine if chronic persistent or chronic active hepatitis is present. If active hepatitis continues, it may result in the development of cirrhosis. Cirrhosis comes form the Greek word meaning “orange-yellow.” This word was used by the Greeks to describe patients who became jaundiced (in other words, developed a yellow discoloration to the whites of their eyes and their skin). Cirrhosis really means scarring within the liver. It does not mean cancer. With adequate treatment, the development of cirrhosis can be prevented if treated soon enough.