Hepatitis is a general term that means inflammation of the liver. It can be acute or chronic and has a number of different causes. It can be caused by a group of viruses known as the hepatitis viruses, including A, B, C, D, and E. Other viruses may also be the culprit, such as those that cause mononucleosis (the Epstein-Barr virus) or chickenpox (the varicella virus).
Hepatitis also applies to inflammation of the liver caused by drugs and alcohol abuse or toxins in the environment. In addition, people also can develop hepatitis from other factors, such as fat accumulation in the liver (called fatty liver disease), trauma, or an autoimmune process in which a person's body makes antibodies that attack the liver.
Viral hepatitis is common. Thousands of cases are reported to the CDC each year, but researchers estimate that the true number of people in the U.S. who have the disease (acute and chronic) is much higher than the number reported.
Many hepatitis cases go undiagnosed because they are mistaken for the flu. Hepatitis can be serious because it interferes with the liver's many functions. Among other things, the liver produces bile to aid digestion, regulates the chemical composition of the blood, and screens potentially harmful substances from the bloodstream.
The five hepatitis viruses can be transmitted in different ways, but they all have one thing in common: They infect the liver and cause it to become inflamed. Generally, the acute phase of the disease lasts from two to three weeks; complete recovery takes about nine weeks. Many patients recover with a lifelong immunity to the disease, but a few hepatitis victims (less than 1%) die in the acute phase. Hepatitis B and C may progress to chronic hepatitis, in which the liver remains inflamed for more than six months. This condition can lead to cirrhosis and possibly death.
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