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Viral Hepatitis


What is viral hepatitis?

Viral hepatitis is infection and inflammation of the liver caused by a virus. Different types of hepatitis are caused by different viruses. Your child may have hepatitis A (most common), hepatitis B (second most common), or hepatitis C. Rarely, other viruses can cause hepatitis. The exact type of hepatitis your child has cannot be known right away. Blood test results can usually determine exactly what type of hepatitis your child has, but the test takes several days.

What is the cause?

A person who has hepatitis may not seem or look sick at all, so it may be hard to tell how your child got hepatitis. Sometimes there are outbreaks at day care centers or restaurants.

Hepatitis A is caused by exposure to another person with hepatitis A or from swallowing or eating something contaminated with the infected person's bowel movement. This may happen, for example, if someone who does not wash his hands after using the bathroom then prepares food for others to eat. Symptoms may appear 2 to 7 weeks after exposure.

Hepatitis B is caused by exposure to an infected person's body fluids, such as blood and saliva, or by sexual contact. Unlike hepatitis A, hepatitis B is not passed through stool-to-mouth contact. Symptoms of hepatitis B may appear 6 weeks to 4 months after exposure.

Hepatitis C is caused by contact with infected blood. This can happen from being born to a mother with hepatitis C, needle sticks with infected needles, or sexual contact. Symptoms of hepatitis C may appear 2 weeks to 6 months after exposure.

What are the symptoms?

Children under 6 years old often have no symptoms. Teens and adults usually have symptoms.

Symptoms of hepatitis include:

  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • itchy skin
  • nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • tiredness
  • muscle and joint aches
  • yellow color of the skin (jaundice)
  • darker yellow or orange color of the urine
  • gray-colored bowel movements
  • pain on the right upper side of the abdomen (belly).

Hepatitis A usually starts with fever, feeling weak, not interested in eating, nausea and vomiting sometimes with pain in the abdomen.

Hepatitis B may start with a skin rash and joint pain.

Hepatitis C may not cause symptoms at first.

What is the treatment?

  • Fluids and diet

    The best treatment is to make sure your child drinks a lot of fluids and eats well. Your child should avoid eating fatty foods. The body has difficulty digesting fat when the liver is not working well because of the hepatitis.

  • Rest

    Your child should rest while he or she has fever or jaundice. When fever and jaundice are gone, your child may gradually increase activity.

  • Medicines

    Your child should not take any medicines, prescription or nonprescription, without consulting your doctor. Do not give any herbs, vitamins or other supplements without checking with your doctor first. Some may affect the liver or have unexpected side effects.

    There is no medicine that gets rid of hepatitis viruses or heals the liver. The body's immune system fights the infection.

  • Recovery

    Once your child recovers from hepatitis A, the virus leaves the body.

  • With hepatitis B, the virus may stay in the body for life (chronic). With hepatitis C, the virus usually becomes chronic. Chronic hepatitis can lead to other health problems such as cirrhosis of the liver or even liver cancer. There is also a higher risk of spreading the disease to others. Some medicines are used to treat chronic hepatitis. These medicines can help, but do not cure the disease.
  • Follow-up

    Your child will have blood tests at follow-up appointments to check on the condition of the liver and the progress of the illness. Keep all appointments as scheduled.

How long do the effects last?

Hepatitis A symptoms usually last less than 2 months, but may last up to 6 months. Your healthcare provider will advise when it is OK for a child with hepatitis A to return to school or day care facilities. Most children with hepatitis A get better on their own without liver problems.

Some children have liver problems later in life. It is important to keep in close touch with your healthcare provider and to keep all follow-up appointments.

How can hepatitis be prevented?

Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B can be prevented by vaccines that all babies should receive. The Hepatitis A vaccine should be given at one year of age and again 6 to 12 months later. The first doss of Hepatitis B vaccine should be given soon after birth. If a child has not received the hepatitis vaccines as a baby, he or she may be vaccinated in childhood or adolescence.

The best way to prevent exposure to hepatitis is good handwashing. Children should wash their hands every time they go to the bathroom. Good handwashing should be enforced at home and at day care.

With hepatitis A, it is also important to keep a clean environment, such as clean toilets, bathrooms, and clothing.

After you know which type of hepatitis your child has, people living in the same house as the child should be treated to prevent spread of the disease. Your healthcare provider will help plan treatment for your family. This treatment is used only to help prevent the disease, it does not treat the actual infection.

When should I call the doctor?

Call IMMEDIATELY if:

  • Your child has changes in symptoms, is confused, is difficult to wake up, is lethargic (sluggish) or irritable.
  • Your child is unable to drink fluids.
  • Your child is getting much more yellow.
  • Your child has signs of dehydration such as no urine in over 8 hours or a dry mouth.
  • Your child starts to act very sick.

Call during office hours if:

  • You have other questions or concerns.

Written by the Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, The Children's Hospital, Denver.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-11
Last reviewed: 2010-11-29

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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