What is Chronic Hepatitis?

D. Jeffress

Chronic hepatitis refers to long-term liver inflammation that can lead to potentially life-threatening health complications. Most cases are caused by the hepatitis C virus, but hepatitis B infection, alcohol abuse, and certain drugs may also lead to serious liver problems. Liver inflammation tends to develop gradually over several years and physical symptoms may not arise until extensive damage has already occurred. When the condition is diagnosed and treated early, most patients are able to experience successful recoveries.

Types of liver disease, including fibrosis and cirrhosis, complications of hepatitis.
Types of liver disease, including fibrosis and cirrhosis, complications of hepatitis.

Hepatitis C and B typically enter the body through direct contact with contaminated blood. Drug users who share needles and people who receive blood transfusions are at the highest risk of infection. The viruses may also be transmitted sexually or passed down from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby. Less commonly, chronic hepatitis can result from long-term alcohol abuse. Some prescription drugs for pain, high blood pressure, and tuberculosis have also been tied to hepatitis, but the risk of serious liver damage from taking medications is very low.

Most people who have chronic hepatitis do not experience adverse symptoms. In fact, the majority of cases never progress far enough to cause cirrhosis or other complications, and patients do not need treatment. If symptoms do appear, they may include fatigue, loss of appetite, and nausea. Some people experience flu-like symptoms including fever and joint aches. A severe case of chronic hepatitis can potentially cause tissue scarring and greatly increase the likelihood of liver failure, infections, and cancer.

A person who experiences symptoms or knows he or she is at risk for chronic hepatitis should visit a doctor. A physician can check for liver hepatitis by performing a physical exam, taking imaging scans of the abdomen, and collecting blood samples for laboratory analysis. When physical damage is obvious or blood tests reveal hepatitis infection, a liver biopsy usually is performed to confirm the diagnosis.

Patients who have chronic hepatitis are usually instructed to abstain from alcohol and tobacco, maintain healthy diets, and start exercising regularly. When the cause is infectious, oral antiviral drugs can usually help relieve symptoms. Medications for other health conditions may need to be stopped or adjusted to prevent adverse reactions. Aggressive treatment in the form of corrective surgery or transplantation is reserved for cases of chronic hepatitis where liver failure is very likely. If the organ is permanently damaged, a liver transplant may be the only viable option to prevent fatal complications.

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