An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of hepatitis.
Hepatitis B Screening
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommend testing for the hepatitis B virus (HBV) for:
- People born in regions with high rates of hepatitis B infection, such as Africa and Asia
- People who inject drugs or share needles
- Men who have sex with men
- People who are HIV-positive
- People who have sex with an infected person or who live in a household with an infected person
- All pregnant women and infants born to mothers infected with HBV
Hepatitis C Screening
The CDC and the USPSTF recommend that everyone born from 1945 to 1965 (the "baby boom" generation) get a one-time test for the hepatitis C virus (HCV):
- People born from 1945 to 1965 comprise 25% of the U.S. population but account for 75% of adults infected with HCV. They are 5 times more likely than other American adults to be infected with HCV.
- Most people with hepatitis C do not experience symptoms and are unaware they are infected. Chronic hepatitis C can be present for decades and liver damage can occur before people experience symptoms.
- Compared to other Americans, people of the baby boom generation face an increased risk of dying from hepatitis C-related illnesses such as liver cancer and cirrhosis. A CDC study found that deaths from hepatitis C have been increasing steadily in recent years, especially among middle-aged people.
- Screening for HCV is also recommended for people who have ever injected street drugs, have certain medical conditions (such as HIV), or have received organ transplants or blood transfusions.
Vaccines are available to prevent hepatitis A and B. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
New Drug Treatments for Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C treatment is rapidly transforming. In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several new oral drug treatments, which are dramatically improving outcomes and cure rates with shorter treatment times:
- In 2013, the FDA approved simeprevir (Olysio), which is used with sofosbuvir or with peginterferon and ribavirin to treat genotype 1. Genotype 1 is the most common type of hepatitis C virus and the most difficult to treat.
- In 2013, the FDA approved sofosbuvir (Sovaldi), which is used in combination with peginterferon and ribavirin for treating genotypes 1 and 4, and without peginterferon for treating genotypes 2 and 3.
- In 2014, the FDA approved ledipasvir-sofosbuvir (Harvoni), a combination pill that is used alone to treat genotype 1. It does not require peginterferon or ribavirin.
All of these drugs are taken as once-daily pills. They are very effective but extremely expensive.
Hepatitis means "inflammation of the liver." It is a disorder in which viruses or other factors produce inflammation in liver cells, resulting in their injury or destruction.
The liver is the largest internal organ in the body, occupying the upper right area of the abdomen. It performs hundreds of vital functions in digestion and metabolism. Some of the liver's key roles are:
- Process and store all of the nutrients the body requires, including sugars, fats, minerals, and vitamins.
- Manufacture essential proteins, such as albumin and blood clotting factors.
- Produce bile, the greenish fluid stored in the gallbladder that helps digest fats.
- Neutralize and eliminate potentially toxic substances, including alcohol, drugs, ammonia, and harmful by-products of digestion.
Damage to the liver can impair these and many other processes.
The esophagus, stomach, large and small intestine, which is aided by the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas, convert the nutritive components of food into energy and break down the non-nutritive components into waste to be excreted.
Types of Hepatitis
Hepatitis can occur from many different causes:
- Viral hepatitis is the most common kind of hepatitis. Many types of viruses can damage the liver. Hepatitis caused by the viruses A, B, and C is the focus of this report.
- Hepatitis can also result from an autoimmune condition, in which abnormally targeted immune factors attack the body's own liver cells.
- Hepatitis can also occur from medical problems, drugs, alcoholism, chemicals, and environmental toxins.
Acute and Chronic Hepatitis
Hepatitis can be either acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term):
Acute hepatitislasts less than 6 months. It usually causes only minimal liver damage. All hepatitis viruses can cause an acute form of liver disease. The hepatitis A virus only causes acute hepatitis; it does not cause chronic disease.
Chronic hepatitislasts more than 6 months. It may progress slowly and cause minimal liver damage, or it can progress aggressively and cause extensive damage. Chronic hepatitis can result from specific hepatitis viruses (B, C, D, and E) or some non-viral forms of hepatitis.
Although chronic hepatitis is generally considered more serious than acute hepatitis, people with either condition can have varying degrees of severity.
Most cases of hepatitis are caused by viruses that infect liver cells and begin multiplying. They are identified by the letters A through G:
Hepatitis A, B, and Care the most common viral forms of hepatitis and are the primary focus of this report.
Hepatitis Dis a serious but less common form of hepatitis that can be chronic. It is associated with hepatitis B because the D virus relies on the B virus to replicate. Hepatitis D cannot exist without the B virus also being present.
Hepatitis Eis usually an acute form of hepatitis that, like hepatitis A, is transmitted by contact with contaminated food or water. In pregnant women, the acute form of hepatitis E can be deadly. People with weakened immune systems may develop a chronic form of hepatitis E. This virus is common in less developed global regions, but rare in developed countries.
- Researchers are investigating additional viruses that may be implicated in hepatitis unexplained by the currently known viruses.
The name of each type of viral hepatitis condition corresponds to the virus that causes it. For example, hepatitis A is caused by hepatitis A virus (HAV), hepatitis B is caused by hepatitis B virus (HBV), and hepatitis C is caused by hepatitis C virus (HCV).
Scientists do not know exactly how these viruses actually cause hepatitis. As the virus reproduces in the liver, several proteins and enzymes, including many that attach to the surface of the viral protein, are also produced. Some of these may be directly responsible for liver inflammation and damage.
Non-viral forms of hepatitis are less common than viral hepatitis.
Autoimmune Hepatitis: Autoimmune hepatitis is a rare form of chronic hepatitis. Like other autoimmune disorders, its exact cause is unknown. Autoimmune hepatitis may develop on its own or it may be associated with other autoimmune disorders, such as systemic lupus erythematosus. In autoimmune disorders, a misdirected immune system attacks the body's own cells and organs (in this case the liver).
Alcoholic Hepatitis: About 20% of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis, usually between the ages of 40 to 60 years. In the body, alcohol breaks down into various chemicals, some of which are very toxic to the liver. After years of drinking, liver damage can be very severe, leading to cirrhosis. Although heavy drinking itself is the major risk factor for alcoholic hepatitis, genetic factors may play a role in increasing a person's risk for alcoholic hepatitis. Women who abuse alcohol are at higher risk for alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis than are men who drink heavily.
Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD): NAFLD encompasses several conditions, including nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). NAFLD has features similar to alcoholic hepatitis, particularly a fatty liver, but it occurs in individuals who drink little or no alcohol. Severe obesity and diabetes are the major risk factors for NAFLD and they also increase the likelihood of complications from NAFLD. NAFLD is usually benign and very slowly progressive. In certain people, however, it can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer.
Drug-Induced Hepatitis: Because the liver plays such a major role in metabolizing drugs, hundreds of medications can cause reactions that are similar to those of acute viral hepatitis. Symptoms can appear any time after starting drug treatment. In most cases, they disappear when the drug is withdrawn, but in rare circumstances they may progress to serious liver disease. Drugs most often associated with liver interactions include:
- Valproic acid
- Sulfonamide drugs
Very high doses of acetaminophen (Tylenol, generic) can cause severe liver damage and even death, particularly when used with alcohol.
Toxin-Induced Hepatitis: Certain types of plant and chemical toxins can cause hepatitis. They include toxins found in poisonous mushrooms, and industrial chemicals such as vinyl chloride.
Metabolic-Disorder Associated Hepatitis: Hereditary metabolic disorders, such as hemochromatosis (accumulation of iron in the body) and Wilson's disease (accumulation of copper in the body) can cause liver inflammation and damage.
Risk Factors and Transmission
Depending on the type of hepatitis virus, there are different ways that people can acquire hepatitis. In the United States, the main ways that people contract hepatitis are:
Hepatitis A:Through contaminated food and water
Hepatitis B:Through sexual contact or contaminated blood or body fluids
Hepatitis C:Through contact with infected blood, usually by sharing drug injection needles and syringes and in rare cases through sexual contact
The hepatitis A virus is excreted in feces and transmitted by ingesting contaminated food or water. An infected person can transmit hepatitis to others if they do not follow sanitary precautions, such as thoroughly washing hands before food preparation.
People can become infected with hepatitis A by:
- Eating or drinking food or water contaminated with hepatitis A virus. Contaminated fruits, vegetables, shellfish, ice, and water are common sources of hepatitis A transmission.
- Engaging in unsafe sexual practices (oral-anal contact).
People at high risk for hepatitis A infection include:
- People who live or travel in countries where hepatitis A is common. Hepatitis A is the hepatitis strain people are most likely to encounter in developing countries.
- People living in a household with someone who has hepatitis A
- Men who have sex with men
- People who abuse drugs
The hepatitis B virus is transmitted through blood, semen, and vaginal secretions. Situations that can cause hepatitis B transmission include:
- Sexual contact with an infected person (using a condom can help reduce risk)
- Sharing needles and drug injection equipment
- Sharing personal items, (toothbrushes, razors, and nail clippers), with an infected person
- Having direct contact with blood of an infected person, through needlestick injury or by touching open wounds
- During childbirth, an infected mother can transmit the hepatitis B virus to her baby.
Experts recommend screening for hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection for the following high-risk groups:
- People born in regions with high rates of hepatitis B infection. These geographic regions include Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and parts of South America and the Caribbean.
- US-born people not vaccinated as infants whose parents were born in very high-risk regions (such as sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia) should also be screened for HBV.
- People who use injected drugs or who share needles
- Men who have sex with men
- People who are HIV-positive
- People who have sex with an infected person or who live in a household with an infected person
- All pregnant women and infants born to mothers infected with HBV; pregnant women should be screened for HBV at their first neonatal visit
The hepatitis C virus is transmitted by contact with infected human blood.
- Most people are infected through sharing needles or other drug injection equipment.
- Less commonly, hepatitis C is spread through sexual contact (only rarely), sharing household items such as razors or toothbrushes, or through birth to a mother infected with hepatitis C.
Experts recommend hepatitis C virus (HCV) testing for:
- People born from 1945 to 1964. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends one-time testing for everyone who was born during these years. "Baby boomers" account for nearly 75% of all HCV infections in the United States. Most people with chronic HCV do not realize they are infected. Middle-aged people are at the greatest risk for developing and dying from liver cancer and other serious HCV-related illnesses. Advances in drug treatments can help cure or stop disease progression for many people with HCV. For these reasons, the CDC advocates HCV screening for people of this generation.
- Current and former drug injection users. Even if it has been many years since you injected drugs, you should get tested.
- People who are HIV-positive
- People who have been on long-term hemodialysis
- People who have had abnormal liver test results
- People who received a blood transfusion, blood product, or organ before 1992 when procedures were implemented to screen blood for hepatitis C
- People who received a blood clotting product prior to 1987, when screening procedures were implemented
Other people at high risk for HCV infection include:
- Health care workers exposed to HCV-positive blood through needlestick injuries
- Children born to mothers infected with hepatitis C
Prevention of Hepatitis A
Vaccination:Hepatitis A is preventable by vaccination. Two vaccines (Havrix, Vaqta) are available, both very safe and effective. They are given in 2 shots, 6 months apart. A combination Hep A - Hep B vaccine (Twinrix) that contains both Havrix and Engerix-B (a hepatitis B vaccine) is also available for people age 18 years and older. It is given as 3 shots over a 6-month period.
The CDC recommend hepatitis A vaccination for:
- Children starting at age 1 year (12 to 23 months)
- Travelers to countries where hepatitis A is prevalent
- Men who have sex with other men
- Users of illegal drugs, especially those who inject drugs
- People with chronic liver diseases, such as hepatitis B or C
Prevention after Exposure to Hepatitis A: Unvaccinated people who have recently been exposed to hepatitis A may be able to prevent hepatitis A by receiving injection with immune globulin (IG) or the hepatitis A vaccine. These shots must be given within 2 weeks after exposure to be effective. The CDC recommends the vaccine for postexposure prophylaxis for healthy individuals between the ages of 1 to 40 years. Others should be given immune globulin if warranted.
Lifestyle Measures for Hepatitis A Prevention: Handwashing after using the bathroom or changing diapers can help prevent the transmission of hepatitis A. International travelers to developing countries should use bottled or boiled water for brushing teeth and drinking, and avoid ice cubes. It is best to eat only well-cooked heated food and to peel raw fruits and vegetables.
Prevention of Hepatitis B
Vaccination: Hepatitis B is preventable by vaccination. It may be given as a single hepatitis B vaccine, or as a combination hepatitis B and hepatitis A vaccine. The hepatitis B vaccine is usually given as a series of 3 to 4 shots over a 6-month period.
The CDC recommends hepatitis B vaccination for:
- All children; they should receive their first dose of hepatitis B vaccine at birth and complete their vaccination series by age 6 to 18 months. Children younger than age 18 who were not vaccinated should receive "catch-up" doses.
- People who live in a household with or who have sexual relations with a person with chronic hepatitis B
- People with multiple sex partners
- Men who have sex with men
- People who inject street drugs
- People with diabetes
- People with chronic liver or kidney disease
- People who are HIV-positive
- People whose jobs may expose them to blood or bodily fluids
- Travelers to regions where hepatitis B is common
Prevention after Exposure to Hepatitis B: The hepatitis B vaccine or a hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) shot may help prevent hepatitis B infection after exposure to the virus.
Lifestyle Measures for Hepatitis B Prevention: Precautions for preventing the transmission of hepatitis B (and hepatitis C) include:
- Use a condom and practice safe sex.
- Avoid sharing personal items such as razors or toothbrushes.
- Do not share drug needles or other drug paraphernalia (such as straws for snorting drugs).
- Clean blood spills with a solution containing 1 part household bleach to 10 parts water.
Hepatitis B (and hepatitis C) viruses cannot be spread by casual contact such as:
- Holding hands
- Sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses
- Coughing or sneezing
Prevention of Hepatitis C
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C prevention. Lifestyle precautions are similar to those for hepatitis B. People who are infected with the hepatitis C virus should avoid drinking alcohol because this can accelerate the liver damage associated with hepatitis C. People who are infected with hepatitis C should receive vaccinations for hepatitis A and B.
Hepatitis A is the least serious of the common hepatitis viruses. It only has an acute (short-term) form that can last from several weeks to up to 6 months. It does not have a chronic form. Most people who have hepatitis A recover completely. Once people recover, they are immune to the hepatitis A virus.
In very rare cases, hepatitis A can cause liver failure (fulminant hepatic failure) but this usually occurs in people who already have other chronic liver diseases, such as hepatitis B or C.
Hepatitis B can have an acute (limited) or chronic (long-term) form. Infants and young children are at much higher risk than adults for developing the chronic form. The vast majority (95%) of adults who are infected with hepatitis B have the acute form, recover spontaneously (without drug treatment) within a few months, and develop immunity to the virus. People who develop immunity are not infectious and cannot pass the virus on to others. Still, blood banks will not accept donations from people who test positive for the presence of HBV antibodies.
About 5% of adults develop a chronic form of hepatitis B. People who have chronic hepatitis B remain infectious and are considered carriers of the disease, even if they do not have any symptoms. Some people with chronic hepatitis B may need drug treatment. Drug treatment can stop the virus from replicating and reduce the risk for cirrhosis and liver damage.
Liver disease, especially liver cancer, is the main cause of death in people with chronic hepatitis B. In fact, hepatitis B is the leading cause of liver cancer worldwide.
People with hepatitis B who are co-infected with hepatitis D may develop a more severe form of acute infection than those who have only hepatitis B. Co-infection with hepatitis B and D increases the risk of developing acute liver failure. People with chronic hepatitis B who develop chronic hepatitis D also face high risk for cirrhosis. Hepatitis D occurs only in people who are already infected with hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C has an acute and chronic form but most people (75 to 85%) who are infected with the virus develop chronic hepatitis C. Chronic hepatitis C poses a risk for cirrhosis, liver cancer, or both.
The prognosis for hepatitis C depends in part on the genotype. There are six distinct genotypes of hepatitis C. Some (such as genotypes 2 and 3) respond better to drug therapy than others (such as genotype 1). The good news is that researchers are making great progress in developing new treatments for chronic hepatitis C. Over the past several years, many new drugs have been approved and other new therapies are being investigated.
People with chronic hepatitis C are considered cured if they have an undetectable amount of virus in their blood 6 months after completing drug treatment. Successful treatment for hepatitis C can help reduce the risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Symptoms of Hepatitis A
Symptoms of hepatitis A are usually mild, especially in children, and generally appear between 2 to 6 weeks after exposure to the virus. Adults are more likely to have fever, jaundice, nausea, fatigue, and itching that can last up to several months. Stools may appear chalky grey and urine will appear darkened.
Symptoms of Hepatitis B
Acute Hepatitis B: Many people with acute hepatitis B have few or no symptoms. If symptoms appear, they tend to occur 6 weeks to 6 months after exposure and be mild and flu-like. Symptoms may include:
- Mild fever
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle or joint aches
Some people develop dark urine and jaundice (yellowish skin).
Symptoms of acute hepatitis B can last from a few weeks to 6 months. Even if people infected with hepatitis B have no symptoms, they can still spread the virus.
Chronic Hepatitis B: Some people with chronic hepatitis B have symptoms similar to those of the acute form, many people can have the chronic form for decades and show no symptoms. Liver damage may eventually be detected when blood tests for liver function are performed.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
Most people with hepatitis C do not experience symptoms. Chronic hepatitis C can be present for 10 to 30 years, and cirrhosis or liver failure can sometimes develop before patients experience any clear symptom. Signs of liver damage may first be detected when blood tests for liver function are performed.
If initial symptoms do occur, they tend to be very mild and resemble the flu with fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, fever, headaches, and abdominal pain. People who have symptoms usually tend to experience them about 6 weeks after exposure to the virus. Some people may not experience symptoms for up to 6 months after exposure. People who have hepatitis C can still pass the virus on to others even if they do not have symptoms.
Health care providers diagnose hepatitis based on a physical examination and the results of blood tests. In addition to specific tests for hepatitis antibodies, other types of blood tests are used to evaluate liver function.
Specific Tests for Hepatitis A
Blood tests are used to identify IgM anti-HAV antibodies, substances that the body produces to fight hepatitis A infection.
Specific Tests for Hepatitis B
There are many different blood tests for detecting the hepatitis B virus. Standard tests include:
- Hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). A positive result indicates active infection, either acute or chronic.
- Hepatitis B surface antibody (HBsAb, also called anti-HBs). A positive result indicates an immune response to hepatitis B, either from previous infection with the virus or from having received the vaccine.
- Antibody to hepatitis B core antigen (HBcAb, also called anti-HBc). A positive result indicates either recent infection or previous infection.
- Hepatitis B envelope antigen (HBeAg) indicates that someone with a chronic infection is actively contagious.
- Antibody to HBeAg (Anti-HBeAg) usually indicates recovery from chronic hepatitis.
- Hepatitis B DNA (HBV DNA) detects hepatitis B viral genetic material. It can detect an active HBV infection. It is mainly used to monitor response to antiviral treatment in people with chronic hepatitis B.
Specific Tests for Hepatitis C
Tests to Identify the Virus: The standard first test for diagnosing hepatitis C is an enzyme immunoassay (EIA), which is used to test for hepatitis C antibodies. Antibodies can usually be detected by EIA 4 to 10 weeks after infection.
Tests to Identify Genetic Types and Viral Load: Additional tests called hepatitis C virus RNA assays may be used to confirm the diagnosis. They use a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect the RNA (the genetic material) of the virus. HCV RNA can be detected through blood tests as early as 2 to 3 weeks after infection.
Hepatitis C RNA assays also determines virus levels (called viral load). Such levels do not reflect the severity of the condition or speed of progression, as they do for other viruses, such as HIV. However, high viral loads may suggest a poorer response to treatment with interferon drugs.
Tests for Genotype: People with hepatitis C need to have their genotype tested so that doctors can make appropriate treatment recommendations. There are 6 main genetic types of hepatitis C and more than 50 subtypes.
Specific genotypes vary in prevalence around the world. Genotype 1 is the most difficult to treat and is the cause of up to 75% of the cases in the U.S and Europe. The other common genetic types in the U.S. are types 2 (15%) and 3 (7%), which are more responsive to treatment than genotype 1. Genotype 4 is more common in the Middle East and Africa. Genotype 5 is limited mainly to South Africa and genotype 6 is prevalent throughout Southeast Asia.
Tests for Liver Function
Liver tests are used to detect certain substances in the blood:
Bilirubin:Bilirubin is a red-yellow pigment that is normally metabolized in the liver and then excreted in the urine. In patients with hepatitis, the liver cannot process bilirubin, and blood levels of this substance rise. (High levels of bilirubin cause the yellowish skin tone known as jaundice.)
Liver Enzymes (Aminotransferases):Enzymes known as aminotransferases, including aspartate (AST) and alanine (ALT), are released when the liver is damaged. Higher amounts indicate a damaged or poorly functioning liver.
Alkaline Phosphatase (ALP):ALP is a protein found in high amounts in the liver and bile ducts. High ALP levels can indicate bile duct blockage.
Serum Albumin Concentration:Albumin is a protein made by the liver. A serum albumin test measures the amount of this protein in the clear liquid portion of the blood. Low levels indicate poor liver function.
Prothrombin Time (PT):The PT test measures in seconds the time it takes for blood clots to form (the longer it takes the greater the risk for bleeding).
FibroSure Test:This blood test combines the results of 6 biomarkers to generate a score that measure fibrosis (scarring) and inflammation in the liver. The test is used for people diagnosed HCV to determine liver damage prior to treatment. It may be used in place of liver biopsy.
Ultrasound or computed tomography (CT) scan may be used to determine the extent of fibrosis (scarring) in the liver and to check for signs of liver cancer. A newer imaging method called transient elastography measures liver stiffness and may provide a non-invasive alternative to liver biopsy.
Liver biopsy used to be considered the gold standard for confirming a diagnosis of hepatitis C and evaluating the extent of liver damage. Nowadays, blood and imaging tests can provide much information, and liver biopsies are not needed in all cases. Some people may, however, need a biopsy to help assess condition and determine treatment plans.
A biopsy involves a doctor inserting a biopsy fine needle, guided by ultrasound, to remove a small sample of liver tissue. Local anesthetic is used to numb the area. You may feel pressure and some dull pain. The procedure takes about 20 minutes to perform.
Treatment for Hepatitis A
Hepatitis A usually clears up on its own and does not require treatment. It is important to get plenty of rest and avoid drinking any alcohol until you are fully recovered.
Treatment for Hepatitis B
Most adults with hepatitis B have an acute form that clears up on its own within 1 to 2 months. There are no medications for treating acute hepatitis B. Health care providers usually recommend that people get plenty of bed rest, drink plenty of fluids, and get adequate nutrition.
A small percentage of adults with hepatitis B develop the chronic form of hepatitis B. Infants and young children who have hepatitis B have a higher risk of developing the chronic form. There are several types of antiviral drugs used to treat chronic hepatitis B, although not all people need to take medication.
It is not always clear which people with chronic hepatitis B should receive drug therapy and when drug therapy should be started. Therapy is generally indicated for people who have experienced a rapid deterioration in liver function or who have signs of long-term liver damage. Your provider may recommend you consult a specialist (gastroenterologist, hepatologist, or infectious disease doctor) who has experience treating hepatitis B.
People with chronic hepatitis B should receive regular monitoring to evaluate any signs of disease progression, liver damage, or liver cancer. It is also important that people with chronic hepatitis B abstain from alcohol as it may accelerate liver damage. You should check with your health care team before taking any over-the-counter or prescription medications or herbal supplements. Some medications (such as high doses of acetaminophen) and herbal products (kava) can increase the risk of liver damage.
If the disease progresses to liver failure, liver transplantation may be an option. There is a risk of recurrence after transplantation. However, pretreatment with antiviral drugs and use of hepatitis B immune globulin after transplantation can reduce the risk for HBV recurrence.
Treatment for Hepatitis C
Antiviral drug therapy is used to treat both acute and chronic forms of hepatitis C. Most people infected with hepatitis C virus develop the chronic form of the disease. Drug treatment can help prevent further liver damage and reduce the risk for liver cancer.
All people with chronic hepatitis C are potential candidates for treatment. You should discuss with your doctor your treatment options, and when treatment should begin. Treatment is especially a priority for people who have advanced fibrosis (liver scarring) or high risk for complications.
Until recently, the standard treatment for chronic hepatitis C was dual combination therapy with the antiviral drugs pegylated interferon (peginterferon) and ribavirin. Since 2011, many new antiviral drugs have become available that have significantly improved cure rates and transformed hepatitis C treatment. For some people, interferon-free drug regimens may be an option.
People with chronic hepatitis C should receive genotype testing to determine the treatment approach. There are 6 types of hepatitis C genotypes and people have different responses to drugs depending on their genotype. For example, people with genotypes 2 or 3 are three times more likely to respond to treatment than those with genotype 1. The recommended length of drug treatment also depends on genotype.
People are considered cured when they have had a "sustained virologic response" and there is no evidence of hepatitis C on lab testing. A sustained virologic response (SVR) means that the hepatitis C virus becomes undetectable during treatment and remains undetectable for at least 12 weeks after treatment has been completed. For most people who have a response, viral loads remain undetectable indefinitely. However, some people can become re-infected or infected with a different genotype strain. Some people do not respond to initial treatment and may need to be retreated with a different drug regimen.
People who develop cirrhosis or liver cancer from chronic hepatitis C may be candidates for liver transplantation. Unfortunately, hepatitis C often recurs after transplantation, which can lead to cirrhosis of the new liver. New drugs, such as sofosbuvir, are showing promise in helping prevent recurrence when used prior to transplantation.
People with chronic hepatitis C should abstain from alcohol because it can speed cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease. They should also check with their providers before taking any non-prescription or prescription medications, or herbal supplements. It is also important that people who are infected with HCV be tested for HIV, as the combination of HIV and HCV produces a more rapid progression of liver disease than HCV alone.
Herbal Remedies and Liver Disease
Popular herbal remedies for hepatitis include ginseng, glycyrrhizin (a compound in licorice), catechin (found in green tea), and silymarin (found in milk thistle). However, there is no evidence that these herbs are helpful for hepatitis or other liver diseases.
Milk thistle is the most studied of these herbs and evidence of its benefit has been mixed. Some small older studies indicated that milk thistle may help improve liver enzyme levels. However, more recent rigorous reviews and better designed studies have found that the herb is ineffective for treating liver disease caused by hepatitis B or C.
People with hepatitis should be aware that some herbal remedies and dietary supplements can cause liver damage. In particular, kava (an herb promoted to relieve anxiety and tension) is dangerous for people with chronic liver disease. Other herbs associated with liver damage include:
- Kombucha mushroom
- Some traditional Chinese herbs
Liver transplantation may be an option for people with severe cirrhosis or for people with liver cancer that has not spread beyond the liver.
Recurrence of hepatitis after transplantation is a concern. Treatment with antiviral drugs before transplantation is recommended to help reduce the risk for recurrence.
Current 5-year survival rates after liver transplantation are about 80%, depending on different factors. People report improved quality of life and mental functioning after liver transplantation.
In researching transplant centers, ask how many transplants they perform each year and their survival rates. Compare those numbers to those of other transplant centers.
Medications for Chronic Hepatitis B
Seven drugs are currently approved in the United States for treatment of chronic hepatitis B:
- Peginterferon alfa-2a (Pegasys)
- Interferon-alfa-2b (Intron A)
- Entecavir (Baraclude)
- Lamivudine (Epivir-HBV)
- Telbivudine (Tyzeka)
- Tenofovir (Viread)
- Adefovir (Hepsera)
These drugs do not cure hepatitis B but they can block the replication of hepatitis B virus (HBV) and lower the amount of HBV in the body. They may also help prevent the development of progressive liver disease (cirrhosis and liver failure) and the development of liver cancer.
Peginterferon alfa-2a, entecavir, and tenofovir are currently the preferred drugs for first-line, long-term treatment. They have shown better results and less likelihood for drug resistance than the other approved medications.
Peginterferon alfa-2a: Peginterferon alfa-2a (Pegasys) is also called pegylated interferon. It is given as a weekly injection. Interferon alfa-2b is an older injectable interferon drug that used to be the standard treatment for hepatitis B but is no longer commonly used.
Common side effects include flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, muscle aches, joint pains, and headaches. The drug can also cause depression, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia and should be used with caution in people with a history of mental illness. Peginterferon alfa-2a can also increase the risk for infections, heart problems, stroke, and autoimmune disorders, as well as other serious conditions.
Entecavir: Entecavir (Baraclude) is an oral drug that is taken once daily. Entecavir is a nucleoside analog drug. Lamivudine (Epivir-HBV) and telvibudine (Tyzeka) are also nucleoside analogs, but they tend to have higher rates of drug resistance than entecavir. For this reason, entecavir is the preferred nucleoside analog drug for treatment of chronic hepatitis B. Common side effects of entecavir and other nucleoside analogs include headache, fatigue, dizziness, and nausea.
Tenofovir: Tenofovir (Viread) is an oral drug that is taken once daily. It belongs to a class of antiviral drugs called nucleotide analogs. Adefovir (Hepsera) is an older drug of this class but it is not used as commonly as tenofovir. Common side effects of these drugs include weakness, headache, stomach pain, and itching.
Serious Side Effects of Entecavir and Tenofovir: People who take entecavir or tenofovir (or a similar antiviral drug) should be aware that:
- Stopping the drug can increase the risk for severe and sudden worsening symptoms of hepatitis B. People who discontinue drug therapy should be closely monitored for several months after stopping treatment. In some cases, drug treatment may need to be reinstated.
- Lactic acidosis (buildup of acid in the blood) is a serious complication of these drugs. Signs and symptoms of lactic acidosis include feeling extremely tired, unusual muscle pain, difficulty breathing, stomach pain with nausea and vomiting, feeling cold (especially in the arms and legs), feeling dizzy or light-headed, or a fast or irregular heartbeat. Immediately contact your health care provider if you experience these symptoms.
- Liver hepatotoxicity (liver damage) is another serious complication. Signs and symptoms include yellowing of skin or white part of eyes (jaundice), dark urine, light-colored stool, or lower stomach pain. Immediately contact your provider if you experience these symptoms.
- Kidney damage (nephrotoxicity) may occur, particularly in people who already have kidney problems.
Medications for Chronic Hepatitis C
Pegylated interferon alfa (Pegasys or Peg-Intron) combined with the nucleoside analog drug ribavirin (Copegus) used to be the gold standard treatment for chronic hepatitis C. In recent years, new antiviral drugs have dramatically changed hepatitis C treatment regimens and improved outcomes:
- In 2011, the FDA approved the protease inhibitors telaprevir (Incivek) and boceprevir (Victrelis). These drugs have been replaced by the newer drugs, which work better and cause fewer side effects.
- In 2013, the FDA approved simeprevir (Olysio), and sofosbuvir (Sovaldi). Simeprevir is a protease inhibitor, approved for treating hepatitis C genotype 1. Sofosbuvir is a nucoleotide analog inhibitor approved for several genotypes. Both of these drugs are pills that are taken once a day. They are usually used along with peginterferon and ribavirin.
- In 2014, the FDA approved ledipasvir-sofosbuvir (Harvoni). This once-daily pill combines sofosbuvir and another type of antiviral drug called ledipasvir. It is approved for treating genotype 1. It does not require administration with ribavirin or peginterferon.
- These new drugs are very effective but extremely expensive.
Treatment by Genotype: Genotype 1 is the most common type of hepatitis C and is more difficult to treat than genotypes 2 and 3.
The introduction of new oral drugs has represented a significant breakthrough for hepatitis C treatment. People with hepatitis C now have various options for treatment, which depend on their viral genotype. As new drugs become available, treatment choices can change. Recommended treatment regimens for initial therapy include:
- For genotype 1, triple combination therapy with peginterferon alfa (pegylated interferon), ribavirin, and sofosbuvir for 12 weeks. Simeprevir plus peginterferon and ribavirin for 24 weeks is another option.
- For people with genotype 1 who cannot take interferon, daily sofosbuvir plus simeprevir with or without ribavirin for 12 weeks. Ledipasvir-sofosbuvir is a new single-pill option, which may be effective in as short as 8 weeks.
- For genotype 2, sofosbuvir plus ribavirin for 12 weeks. For genotype 3, sofosbuvir plus ribavirin for 24 weeks.
Side Effects: Pegylated interferon alfa is given as an injection once a week. Ribavirin is taken as a pill twice a day. Common side effects of peginterferon-ribavirin treatment include fatigue, stomach upset, and flu-like symptoms. More serious side effects may include:
- Depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health problems (caused by peginterferon)
- Decrease in white blood cell count (caused by peginterferon) and decrease in red blood cell count (caused by ribavirin)
- Skin rash, cough, shortness of breath (caused by ribavirin)
- Risk for birth defects (associated with ribavirin)
Common side effects of sofosbuvir (Sovaldi), simeprevir (Olysio), and ledipasvir-sofosbuvir (Harvoni) include fatigue, headache, nausea, diarrhea, and insomnia. Rash, including serious sensitivity to light (photosensitivity), is a common side effect of simeprevir.
- www.cdc.gov/hepatitis -- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- www.aasld.org -- American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases
- www.liverfoundation.org -- American Liver Foundation
- www2.niddk.nih.gov -- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
- www.hepfi.org -- Hepatitis Foundation International
- www.hcvguidelines.org -- Recommendations for Testing, Managing, and Treating Hepatitis C
- www.hepb.org -- Hepatitis B Foundation
- www.unos.org -- United Network for Organ Sharing
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Review Date: 12/26/2014
Reviewed By: Todd Eisner, MD, Private practice specializing in Gastroenterology, Boca Raton, FL. Clinical Instructor, Florida Atlantic University School of Medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Author: Julia Mongo, MS.