Hepatitis (plural hepatitides) implies injury to the liver characterized by the presence of inflammatory cells in the tissue of the organ. The name is from ancient Greek hepar (ηπαρ) or hepato- (ηπατο-), meaning liver, and suffix -itis, meaning "inflammation" (c. 1727). The condition can be self-limiting, healing on its own, or can progress to scarring of the liver. Hepatitis is acute when it lasts less than six months and chronic when it persists longer. A group of viruses known as the hepatitis viruses cause most cases of liver damage worldwide. Hepatitis can also be due to toxins (notably alcohol), other infections or from autoimmune process. It may run a subclinical course when the affected person may not feel ill. The patient becomes unwell and symptomatic when the disease impairs liver functions that include, among other things, removal of harmful substances, regulation of blood composition, and production of bile to help digestion.
Clinically, the course of acute hepatitis varies widely from mild symptoms requiring no treatment to fulminant hepatic failure needing liver transplantation. Acute viral hepatitis is more likely to be asymptomatic in younger people. Symptomatic individuals may present after convalescent stage of 7 to 10 days, with the total illness lasting 2 to 6 weeks.
Initial features are of nonspecific flu-like symptoms, common to almost all acute viral infections and may include malaise, muscle and joint aches, fever, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, and headache. More specific symptoms, which can be present in acute hepatitis from any cause, are: profound loss of appetite, aversion to smoking among smokers, dark urine, yellowing of the eyes and skin (i.e., jaundice) and abdominal discomfort. Physical findings are usually minimal, apart from jaundice (33%) and tender hepatomegaly (10%). There can be occasional lymphadenopathy (5%) or splenomegaly (5%).
Majority of patients will remain asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, abnormal blood tests being the only manifestation. Features may be related to the extent of liver damage or the cause of hepatitis. Many experience return of symptoms related to acute hepatitis. Jaundice can be a late feature and may indicate extensive damage. Other features include abdominal fullness from enlarged liver or spleen, low grade fever and fluid retention (ascites). Extensive damage and scarring of liver (i.e., cirrhosis) leads to weight loss, easy bruising and bleeding tendencies. Acne, abnormal menstruation, lung scarring, inflammation of the thyroid gland and kidneys may be present in women with autoimmune hepatitis.
Most cases of acute hepatitis are due to viral infections:
Ethanol, mostly in alcoholic beverages, is a significant cause of hepatitis. Usually alcoholic hepatitis comes after a period of increased alcohol consumption. Alcoholic hepatitis is characterized by a variable constellation of symptoms, which may include feeling unwell, enlargement of the liver, development of fluid in the abdomen ascites, and modest elevation of liver blood tests. Alcoholic hepatitis can vary from mild with only liver test elevation to severe liver inflammation with development of jaundice, prolonged prothrombin time, and liver failure. Severe cases are characterized by either obtundation (dulled consciousness) or the combination of elevated bilirubin levels and prolonged prothrombin time; the mortality rate in both categories is 50% within 30 days of onset.
Alcoholic hepatitis is distinct from cirrhosis caused by long term alcohol consumption. Alcoholic hepatitis can occur in patients with chronic alcoholic liver disease and alcoholic cirrhosis. Alcoholic hepatitis by itself does not lead to cirrhosis, but cirrhosis is more common in patients with long term alcohol consumption. Patients who drink alcohol to excess are also more often than others found to have hepatitis C. The combination of hepatitis C and alcohol consumption accelerates the development of cirrhosis.
A large number of drugs can cause hepatitis:
The clinical course of drug-induced hepatitis is quite variable, depending on the drug and the patient's tendency to react to the drug. For example, halothane hepatitis can range from mild to fatal as can INH-induced hepatitis. Hormonal contraception can cause structural changes in the liver. Amiodarone hepatitis can be untreatable since the long half life of the drug (up to 60 days) means that there is no effective way to stop exposure to the drug. Statins can cause elevations of liver function blood tests normally without indicating an underlying hepatitis. Lastly, human variability is such that any drug can be a cause of hepatitis.
The diagnosis depends on medical history, physical exam, blood tests, radiological imaging and sometimes a liver biopsy. The initial evaluation to identify the presence of fatty infiltration of the liver is medical imaging, including such ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance (MRI). However, imaging cannot readily identify inflammation in the liver. Therefore, the differentiation between steatosis and NASH often requires a liver biopsy. It can also be difficult to distinguish NASH from alcoholic hepatitis when the patient has a history of alcohol consumption. Sometimes in such cases a trial of abstinence from alcohol along with follow-up blood tests and a repeated liver biopsy are required.
NASH is becoming recognized as the most important cause of liver disease second only to hepatitis C in numbers of patients going on to cirrhosis.