What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is broadly defined as inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is further divided into an acute injury that resolves, and chronic inflammation that can ultimately result in a damaged and dysfunctional liver. The liver is able to regenerate and function normally for a long period of time even while inflamed, so hepatitis may go undiagnosed for years. Unfortunately, symptoms often do not develop until the liver is so damaged from scar tissue that it can no longer perform its vital functions. This condition is called cirrhosis.
There are a variety of causes of hepatitis, the most common being fatty infiltration of the liver, chronic viral infections and alcohol. There are also less common causes including reactions to medications, metabolic and autoimmune disorders.
Most patients with chronic hepatitis are asymptomatic. Less commonly, patients may experience fatigue, loss of appetite or weight loss. The first indicator of a liver problem is often routine blood work that demonstrates elevated liver tests.
Severe hepatitis may be associated with abdominal swelling, confusion or jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Many chronic forms of hepatitis are asymptomatic and may only be discovered upon routine blood work that reveals abnormal liver tests.
Tests & Diagnosis
If your health care provider finds abnormal liver tests, she may refer you a digestive disease specialist for further evaluation. The cause of the hepatitis can usually be determined by laboratory testing, imaging the liver with an ultrasound and taking a careful history from the patient.
Often a liver biopsy is performed to assist with the diagnosis and assess severity of inflammation and scarring of the liver.
Once the underlying cause of the inflammation is determined, treatment may be pursued. This may include anti-viral medication if the hepatitis is of viral origin or weight loss and exercise in cases of fatty liver disease. Treatment can help prevent chronic scarring (ﬁbrosis) of the liver that may ultimately lead to liver dysfunction. Advanced ﬁbrosis is commonly referred to as cirrhosis.
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