What is Hepatitis?

What is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis (viral hepatitis) is the inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is typically caused by infectious viruses like hepatitis A, B, or C, but alcohol, genetic disorders, or autoimmune issues can also cause it. There are hundreds of millions of people living with hepatitis worldwide, including 2.4 million people in the U.S. who are living with hepatitis.

When a hepatitis virus enters the body and attacks liver cells, the immune system triggers inflammation in the liver, which can result in liver scarring or cirrhosis over time. Depending on the type of hepatitis, it can be acute or chronic. Chronic hepatitis can lead to liver damage like cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer.

Types of Hepatitis


There are five main viruses that cause hepatitis – hepatitis A, B, C, D or E. But hepatitis can also be caused by other viruses, including cytomegalovirus, the Epstein-Barr virus, or herpes simplex virus.

  • Hepatitis A is typically spread through infected stool that has contaminated water or food sources, particularly in areas with poor sanitation. It can also be spread through unprotected sex. Hepatitis A is acute, meaning symptoms can begin quickly and intensely, and may require hospitalization and intravenous fluids.
  • Hepatitis B can be acute or chronic and is usually spread through contact with bodily fluids like blood or saliva – or contaminated objects or needles. Risk factors include unprotected sex, sharing needles, or being on long-term dialysis.
  • Hepatitis C may often be symptom-less, even though it can be in your system for months or years, causing liver damage. Hepatitis C is typically spread through contact with blood, such as when people share needles through intravenous drug use.
  • Hepatitis D only occurs in people who are infected with the hepatitis B virus, as it requires that virus for its replication. Hepatitis D can be either acute or chronic, and in chronic cases can lead to long-term liver damage and serious illness.
  • Hepatitis E is also known as enteric hepatitis and is similar to hepatitis A. It is not as serious as the other forms of hepatitis, and most patients can recover entirely. Patients with compromised immune systems may have difficulty getting rid of this infection.
  • Autoimmune hepatitis occurs when the body’s immune cells begin attacking the liver. The condition usually presents in people with autoimmune diseases, like thyroiditis, Grave’s disease, immune thrombocytopenia, or celiac disease. Patients with autoimmune hepatitis are typically given medications like corticosteroids to slow down inflammation.
  • Neonatal hepatitis occurs in infants between the ages of one or two months, and can be caused by a virus like cytomegalovirus, rubella (measles), or the hepatitis viruses.
  • Hepatitis caused by cytomegalovirus or Epstein-Barr virus. Various viruses, including cytomegalovirus or Epstein-Barr virus can also cause hepatitis. The Epstein-Barr virus can be a rare trigger for acute hepatitis during the course of infectious mononucleosis, and it often resolves on its own. Cytomegalovirus (CMV) hepatitis occurs when the CMV virus triggers inflammation in the liver.
  • Hepatitis caused by herpes simplex virus. The herpes simplex virus can trigger hepatitis, though rare.

Stages of Hepatitis


Hepatitis has three main phases following its incubation period, which can last from six weeks to six months.

The stages of viral hepatitis include:

  • Prodromal phase. The first phase of hepatitis is marked by a feeling of malaise and fatigue, and may be accompanied by fever, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. It could also entail joint or muscle pain.
  • Icteric phase. The icteric phase of viral hepatitis involves jaundice, urine turning dark, or eyes turning yellow. This phase may last several days to a few weeks.
  • Convalescence phase. The convalescence phase of hepatitis involves malaise and fatigue that can last for weeks or months, but symptoms from the icteric or prodromal phases typically go away at this stage.

Signs & Symptoms of Hepatitis


Hepatitis symptoms are caused by liver inflammation, which can lead to jaundice, a condition in which the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow. Other symptoms include stomach pain, nausea, and a darker urine color.

If you’re experiencing any signs of hepatitis, our liver specialists at NewYork-Presbyterian are experienced in diagnosing viral hepatitis and getting you the best treatment.

Hepatitis symptoms include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Jaundice
  • Pale or grey stool
  • Dark urine
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Joint pain
  • Vomiting

What Causes Hepatitis?


Hepatitis is caused by a virus, meaning it can be passed from one person to another, usually through the exchange of blood or bodily fluids, or through food or water that’s been contaminated by feces.

The different causes of hepatitis transmission include:

  • Hepatitis A can be spread through food, drinking water, fecal matter, or sexual contact.
  • Hepatitis B is typically spread through sexual contact, needle sharing/exposure, or bodily fluids.
  • Hepatitis C can be contracted via needle sharing, infected blood, or sexual contact.
  • Hepatitis D is caused by getting infected with the hepatitis B virus, or by getting infected during pregnancy from the mother.
  • Hepatitis E can be contracted by eating infected/undercooked foods, or through food/water that’s been contaminated by feces.
  • Hepatitis can also be caused by contracting other viruses, including cytomegalovirus, the Epstein-Barr virus, and herpes simplex virus.

Risk Factors

Risk Factors

Viral hepatitis is most likely to spread in areas with poor sanitation or unsafe water, where infected fecal matter can get into food or the water supply. People who use unsterilized needles, such as during intravenous drug use, are also at a higher risk of contracting hepatitis.

The main risk factors of hepatitis include:

  • Being in areas with poor sanitation
  • Unprotected sex
  • Sex between men
  • Lack of safe water
  • Traveling to places with high infection rates
  • Use of recreational drugs
  • Babies born to mothers who have viral hepatitis
  • Exposure to unsterilized tools like medical equipment, tattoos, or piercings
  • Being on dialysis long-term



Viral hepatitis can lead to several serious complications and even death, especially if it’s chronic.

Complications include:



Because viral hepatitis can lead to serious complications like cirrhosis or liver failure, it’s important to take preventive steps to avoid infection.

Here are some ways to prevent hepatitis:

  • Get vaccinated for hepatitis A/B. Vaccines for hepatitis A and B are effective ways to avoid getting infected and are available for people at any age.
  • Use protection during sex. Because viral hepatitis can be spread through bodily fluids, it’s important to maintain safe sex practices like wearing a condom. In addition, it’s important to be aware of your sexual partner’s status of sexually-transmitted diseases or hepatitis in advance.
  • Avoid sharing needles, toothbrushes, or razors. Using contaminated items like needles or razors can risk spreading the disease.
  • Maintain proper hygiene. Washing your hands and maintaining good hygiene practices can help prevent the spread of hepatitis via blood, stool, or bodily fluids.
  • Fully cook food and avoid unsafe water. Avoid drinking unsafe water, especially in areas where hepatitis cases are high, and be sure to cook food properly.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol. It’s recommended to cut down on alcohol use if you’re at risk of hepatitis because it can contribute to further liver damage.
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Hepatitis Care

If you believe you may have symptoms of hepatitis, the experts at NewYork-Presbyterian are here to help. We can connect you with a highly trained team of specialists who are experienced in diagnosing and treating viral hepatitis.

Call us to set up an appointment so you can have access to the best treatment options for your condition.