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* Please note that most treatment modalities listed below are based on conventional medicine. does not advocate the use of any pharmaceutical drug treatments. Long-term drug therapy is very detrimental to human health. All drug information is for your reference only and readers are strongly encouraged to research healthier alternatives to any drug therapies listed.




Hepatitis is a disorder in which viruses or other mechanisms produce inflammation in liver cells, resulting in their injury or destruction. [ See Box The Liver.] In most cases, this inflammatory process is triggered when the immune system fights off infections caused by viruses. It can also be caused, however, by an overactive immune system that attacks its own liver cells. Inflammation of the liver can also occur from medical problems, drugs, alcoholism, chemicals, and environmental toxins. Hepatitis varies in severity from a self-limited condition with total recovery to a life-threatening or life-long disease.

Experts define hepatitis in one of two ways:

  • Short-term (acute hepatitis).

  • Prolonged (chronic hepatitis).
In some cases, acute hepatitis develops into a chronic condition, but chronic hepatitis can also occur on its own. Although chronic hepatitis is generally the more serious condition, patients having either condition can experience varying degrees of severity.

The Liver

The liver is the largest organ in the body, occupying the entire upper right quadrant of the abdomen. It performs over 500 vital functions. Among them are the following:

  • It processes all of the nutrients the body requires, including proteins, glucose, vitamins, and fats.

  • The liver manufactures bile, the greenish fluid stored in the gall bladder that helps digest fats.

  • One of the liver's major contributions to life is to render harmless potentially toxic substances, including alcohol, ammonia, nicotine, drugs, and harmful by-products of digestion.

  • Old red blood cells are removed from the blood by the liver and spleen, and the iron contained in them is recycled to the bone marrow to make new red blood cells.
Damage to the liver can impair these and many other processes.

Acute Hepatitis

Acute hepatitis can begin suddenly or gradually, but it has a limited course and rarely lasts beyond one or two months. Usually there is only spotty liver cell damage and evidence of immune system activity, but on rare occasions, acute hepatitis can cause severe, even life-threatening, liver damage.

Chronic Hepatitis

The chronic forms of hepatitis persist for prolonged periods. Experts usually categorize chronic hepatitis as either (1) chronic persistent or (2) chronic active hepatitis, which are indications of severity. Chronic persistent hepatitis is usually mild and nonprogressive or slowly progressive, causing limited damage to the liver. If damage to the liver is extensive and cell injury occurs beyond the portal tract, chronic active hepatitis can develop. [ See How Serious is Hepatitis, below.]


Causes of Viral Hepatitis

Most cases of hepatitis are caused by viruses that infect liver cells and begin replicating. They are defined by the letters A through G. [For details of common specific hepatitis viruses, see Table Specific Hepatitis Viruses: Modes of Transmission.] Investigators are still looking for additional viruses that may be implicated in hepatitis unexplained by the current known viruses. For example, hepatitis GB (not discussed in the table) has been discovered as a new distinct hepatitis virus. Another recently detected virus called transfusion-transmitted virus (TTV) may be more common than previously thought and may be transmitted via means in addition to transfusions. It is not yet known whether either of these viruses injure the liver. A number of other common viruses, including herpes simplex, can sometimes injure the liver, although they rarely cause severe hepatitis.

Scientists don't know exactly how specific hepatitis viruses injure the liver. As the virus reproduces in the liver, a number of 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 damage. Researchers are investigating elevated levels of specific T-cell sub-types in the liver of hepatitis C and B patients. T-cells are important infection fighters in the immune system. Some evidence suggests, however, that the specific T-cells found in hepatitis B and C can release powerful inflammatory agents (eg, tumor necrosis factor and interferon gamma) that can cause considerable damage.

Autoimmune Chronic Hepatitis

Autoimmune chronic hepatitis accounts for about 20% of all chronic hepatitis cases. Like other autoimmune disorders, this condition develops because a genetically defective immune system attacks the body's own cells and organs, in this case, the liver, after being triggered by an environmental agent, probably a virus. Suspects include the measles virus, a hepatitis virus, or the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis. It is also possible that a reaction to a drug or other toxin that affects the liver also triggers an autoimmune response in susceptible individuals. In about 30% of cases, autoimmune hepatitis is associated with other disorders that involve autoimmune attacks on other parts of the body.

Hepatitis Caused by Alcohol and Drugs

Alcohol. About 10% to 35% of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis. In the body, alcohol breaks down into various chemicals, some of which are very toxic in the liver. After years of drinking, liver damage can be very severe, leading to cirrhosis in about 10% to 20% of cases.

Drugs. 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 anywhere from two weeks to six months 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. Among the drugs most prominently cited for liver interactions are halothane, isoniazid, methyldopa, phenytoin, valproic acid, and the sulfonamide drugs. Notably, very high doses of acetaminophen (Tylenol) have been known to cause severe liver damage and even death, particularly when used with alcohol.

Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis

Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) has features similar to alcohol-induced hepatitis, particularly a fatty liver, but it occurs in individuals who do not consume significant amounts of alcohol. This disorder may occur in conjunction with obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, small intestine surgery, or other factors. Research now suggests that insulin resistance plays a role in the development of NASH. Insulin resistance is the major problem in type 2 diabetes, in which the body resists the action of insulin, which causes an increase in blood sugar.

NASH should be considered as a possible cause of chronic hepatitis when other acquired causes have been eliminated. Weight reduction and management of any accompanying medical condition are the primary approaches to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. To date, however, there is no effective treatment for NASH, although experimental therapies, such as bile acids, antibiotics, nutritional supplements, and antioxidants, have had some success in selected patients.


Risk Factors for Hepatitis A

About one third of the US population has antibodies to hepatitis A, indicating previous infection by the virus. The hepatitis A virus infects up to 200,000 Americans every year and causes symptoms in about 134,000 of them. Almost 30% are children under age 15.

Feces-contaminated water and food are the major sources of infection, and infected people can transmit it to others if they do not take strict sanitary precautions. Among the people at risk for passing the infection along or being infected are the following:

  • International travelers. Hepatitis A is the hepatitis strain people are most likely to encounter in the course of international travel. In fact, in spite of the availability of a vaccine, the increase in travel to underdeveloped countries has kept the incidence of hepatitis A steady in Western nations. The incidence may even be increasing.

  • Day care employees and children. It is estimated that between 11% and 16% of hepatitis A cases occur among day care employees and children who attend day care. The risk for children attending day care is very low, however, if hygienic precautions are used, particularly when changing babies and handling diapers.

  • Sexually active homosexual men.

  • Intravenous drug users.

  • Health care workers.

  • Food industry workers.

  • Sewage workers.

Risk Factors for Hepatitis B and D

Risk Factors for Hepatitis B. Worldwide, about 350 million people carry hepatitis B (HBV). Three quarters of chronic hepatitis B carriers live in the Asia Pacific region. It is also common in southern Africa and the Mediterranean regions. In the US, there are up to about 320,000 new cases every year, with up to 160,000 experiencing symptoms. Despite blood screening and vaccinations in children the current annual incidence is holding steady. This may indicate that sexual activity is an important route for viral transmission and that the protective effect of the vaccine has not yet reached older, high-risk groups. Also, as with hepatitis A, the increase in travelers to underdeveloped nations may also be responsible for the steady rate.

Up to 90% of HBV patients are men, although it can infect children. The following are some people at risk:

  • Drug users who share needles are at considerable risk.

  • Children of infected mothers. Pregnant women with hepatitis B can transmit the virus to their babies. Even if they are not infected at birth, unvaccinated (note: vaccines can cause irreversible health damage to the brain/body, and risks largely exceed any benefits. See SPECIAL REPORTS on vaccines. Please review all the evidence on vaccines before deciding to vaccinate yourself or your children.) children of infected mothers run a 60% risk of developing it before age five. Children are more likely than adults to become chronic carriers, although between 6% and 12% of children spontaneously recover each year.

  • Hospital workers and others exposed to blood products. Contaminated medical instruments, including fingerstick devices used for more than one individual, have been known to transmit the virus.

  • Staff members of institutions for mentally impaired people.

  • Prisoners.

  • Emigrants from areas where the disease rate is high. (International travelers who spend long periods in such areas may also be at risk.)

  • People most at highest risk for becoming chronic carriers of the virus are the following:

  • Children infected before they are five, including newborns, most of whom become carriers.

  • Infected people with damaged immune systems, such as AIDS patients.
Risk Factors for Hepatitis D. Hepatitis D occurs only in people with hepatitis B. It is not common in the US and the incidence of this hepatitis is declining rapidly overseas. Experts anticipate that it will be extremely rare in the near future. Those who recover from hepatitis B are immune to further infection from both hepatitis B and D viruses.

Risk Factors for Hepatitis C

There are about 36,000 new hepatitis C (HCV) infections every year in the US, which is a significant decline compared to previous decades. During the 1980s, about 230,000 cases occurred each year. These high rates have resulted in an estimated 2.7 million to 4 million cases of chronic hepatitis C in America, and this condition also affects 170 million people worldwide.

African Americans are twice as likely as whites to be infected, and men are at greater risk than women. It is currently not possible to predict which patients will develop the chronic form of hepatitis C. Some people at known risk for initial infection are as follows:

  • Intravenous drug users. Intravenous drug use has been the greatest risk factor for HCV since the early 1980s. It accounts for 60% of new cases and 20% to 50% of chronic infections. Individuals who engage in this activity have a risk for infection that is between 50% and 80%. According to a 2001 study, even among young people who have access to needle exchange programs, 45% are infected with HCV at any time and 11% become infected each year. Intravenous drug use, particularly in people who also drink alcohol heavily, poses a higher risk for severe complications. Intranasal cocaine use also appears to increase the risk.

  • People who had transfusions before 1992. Although transfused blood has been tested for both hepatitis B and C since the early nineties, individuals given transfusions before then, even decades before, may still be at risk. Such individuals are urged to be tested. Hepatitis C can exist for decades without symptoms, and nearly 300,000 people who had transfusions before 1992, including many who were children at the time, may have been infected. Of some reassurance was a 1999 study of 458 people who had transfusions when they were children. After an average of 20 years only 8% tested positive for hepatitis C and only three people showed signs of any liver abnormalities. These results suggest that the virus may be less aggressive in children than adults, but further observations are needed to learn if the infection remains mild beyond age 30.

  • Children who survive cancer.

  • People who have had body piercing or tattoos.

  • Organ transplant recipients.

  • People who have been either sexually promiscuous or people in a long-term sexual and intimate relationship with an infected partner. (It is not fully known, however, how sexual transmission occurs in these cases. One study, for instance, found no genetic traces of the virus in the semen of men infected with hepatitis C.)

  • Hospital workers and patients exposed to them. Most health care providers are at low risk, although the chance of infection in hospital workers who are accidentally stuck with a needle is high, ranging from 4% to 10%. (It is not yet clear if this poses any significant risk to patients. Some evidence suggests, for example, that patients operated on by infected surgeons have a risk for HVC that ranges from one in 1,750 to one in 16,000. Some experts believe, however, that the risk for the patient is significantly higher. )

  • Infants of infected mothers. Some experts believe that the transmission of the hepatitis C virus from an infected mother to her infant could become the major route of infection as preventive measures against other modes of transmission become commonly applied. At this time the risk to the infant from an infected mother is between 5% to 30%, depending on a number of risk factors. The highest rates of infection are in mothers who are also HIV positive. Cesarean section delivery in infected mothers may help protect the infants from contracting hepatitis C during delivery, but it is not fool proof.

  • The risk factors for developing chronic hepatitis are not known.

Risk Factors for Hepatitis G

Hepatitis G accounts for about 9% of cases that cannot be diagnosed as hepatitis A through E. It also occurs in about 25% of patients with hepatitis A, 32% of those with hepatitis B, and 20% of patients with hepatitis C. Hepatitis G is detected in between 1.5% and 3.2% of blood donors and is believed to be more common than hepatitis C. From what is known of hepatitis G, its risk factors are probably similar to those of hepatitis C, although incidence among patients with multiple blood transfusions is much lower than with hepatitis C.

Risk Factors for Autoimmune Chronic Hepatitis

Autoimmune chronic hepatitis typically occurs in women between the ages of 20 and 40 who have other autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren's syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, glomerulonephritis, and hemolytic anemia. Some research indicates that the postmenopausal period may be another peak in incidence of AIH among women. About 30% of patients are men, however, and in both genders there is often no relationship to another autoimmune disease. In general, no major risk factors have been discovered for this condition.

Risk Factors for Alcoholic Hepatitis

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. High fat diets may also increase the risk in heavy drinkers.

Risk Factors for Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis

Severe obesity plus hypertension are the major risk factors for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. The condition occurs in about 25% of severely obese people according to a 2001 study.


Hepatitis Virus

Modes of Transmission

Hepatitis A. (formerly called infectious hepatitis)

Excreted in feces and transmitted by contaminated food and water. Eating shellfish taken from sewage-contaminated water is a common means of contracting hepatitis A. It can also be acquired by close contact with individuals infected with the virus.

Hepatitis B (HBV) and D. (formerly called serum hepatitis)

Transmitted through blood transfusions, contaminated needles, and sexual contact. Blood screening has reduced the risk from transfusions. Can be passed from cuts, scrapes, and other breaks in the skin. Hepatitis D virus can replicate only by attaching to hepatitis B and therefore cannot exist without the B virus being present.

Hepatitis C (HCV). (formerly called non-A non-B hepatitis.)

Until blood screening began in 1990, the primary mode of known transmission was through transfusions. Also transmitted through contaminated needles. Possibly sexual transmission. Cause of transmission now unknown in 40% of cases.

Hepatitis E.

Contact with contaminated food or water.

Hepatitis G.

Modes of transmission probably similar to hepatitis C although risk is much lower.


Symptoms of Acute Hepatitis

In general, the symptoms of acute hepatitis are common to all viral strains but they may differ somewhat. [ See Table Viral Hepatitis Types.] Symptoms of acute viral hepatitis may begin suddenly or develop gradually. They may be so mild that patients mistake the disease for the flu. They include the following:

  • Nearly all patients experience some fatigue and often have mild fever.

  • Gastrointestinal problems are very common, including nausea and vomiting and a general feeling of discomfort in the abdomen or a sharper pain that may occur in the upper right area if the abdomen. This pain tends to increase during jerking movements, such as climbing stairs or riding on a bumpy road.

  • GI problems can lead to loss of appetite, weight loss, and dehydration.

  • After about two weeks, dark urine and jaundice (a yellowish color in the skin and whites of the eyes) develops in some, but not all, patients. (Children tend not to develop jaundice.)

  • About half of all hepatitis patients have light colored stools, muscle pain, drowsiness, irritability, and itching, usually mild.

  • Diarrhea and joint aches occur in about a quarter of patients.

  • The liver may be tender and enlarged and most people have mild anemia.

  • In about 10% of patients, the spleen is enlarged.
Symptoms of Fulminant Hepatitis. In very rare cases, within two months of onset of acute hepatitis, a very serious condition known as fulminant hepatitis develops. Symptoms may include the following:

  • A large swollen abdomen (known as ascites) and a peculiar hand-flapping tremor (called asterixis).

  • These symptoms may be followed by stomach and intestinal bleeding and mental confusion, stupor, or coma caused by brain injury (encephalopathy).

Symptoms of Chronic Hepatitis B and C

Both hepatitis B and C can progress to chronic hepatitis, usually with no early acute symptoms. Symptoms of progressive chronic viral hepatitis may be very subtle and no more than a mild persistence of acute symptoms for six or more months. In fact, chronic hepatitis C can be present for 10 to 30 years without presenting any obvious problems. In some patients, itchy skin may be the first symptom. Overall, fatigue is the most common symptom affecting the quality of life of patients with chronic hepatitis C. Symptoms of chronic hepatitis can impair daily function, vitality, and mood in ways that are similar to other chronic diseases. Some patients develop pain in small joints in the body (such as the hand) that may be nearly indistinguishable from symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, or carpal tunnel syndrome. In some cases, however, cirrhosis or liver failure can develop before patients experience any symptoms at all.

Symptoms of Chronic Autoimmune Hepatitis

The symptoms of chronic autoimmune hepatitis range from minimal to severe, including fatigue, jaundice, fever, and weight loss. The liver and spleen are often enlarged. In addition, patients with this condition may experience skin disorders, including palmar erythema (red palms) and spider angioma (a blood-red spot, the size of a pinhead, from which tiny blood vessels radiate like spider legs). Itching is not common, however. The abdomen or legs may be swollen due to the accumulation of fluid.


Blood Tests to Diagnose the Presence of Hepatitis and Its Severity

In people suspected of having or carrying viral hepatitis, physicians will measure certain substances in the blood.

  • Bilirubin. Bilirubin is one of the most important factors indicative of hepatitis. It 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.)

  • Aminotransferase. Enzymes known as aminotransferases, particularly aspartate (AST) and alanine (ALT) are released when the liver is damaged. Measurements of these enzymes are important for detecting hepatitis, determining its severity, and monitoring treatment effectiveness in some cases.

Tests to Determine Causes of Hepatitis

Radioimmunoassays. To identify the particular virus causing hepatitis, blood tests called radioimmunoassays are performed. Typically, radioimmunoassays identify particular antibodies, which are molecules in the immune system that attack specific antigens. (Antigens are any molecules that the body considers threatening or dangerous and which can be targeted by antibodies.) Some of these tests can pinpoint hepatitis antigens directly. These tests, however, have limitations:

  • There may not be sufficient numbers of antibodies to be detectable by blood tests for up to weeks or months after hepatitis develops. Blood tests that are taken too early, then, may miss these signs of infection.

  • Antibodies also persist after patients recover, so a positive antibody test can indicate a previous infection but does not necessarily determine if the infection is active.
The assays for individual hepatitis viruses may differ. [See Table, Tests for Individual Hepatitis Viruses.]

Polymerase Chain Reaction. In some cases of hepatitis C, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), may be performed. A PCR is able to make multiple copies of the genetic material (the RNA) of the virus to the point where it is detectable.


Tests for Specific Hepatitis Viruses

Hepatitis A

Radioimmunoassays are generally used to identify IgM antibodies, first produced to fight hepatitis A. They appear early in the course of the disease and usually can be identified as soon as symptoms appear. IgM antibodies disappear during recovery, but those known as IgG antibodies persist, and their presence can be used to indicate a previous infection.

Hepatitis B and D

A radioimmunoassay must be done promptly to identify the antigen HBAg, which is found in the blood in early stages but disappears within four months unless the patient becomes a long-term carrier. Antibodies to the antigen appear during convalescence and may be identified then, even if the antigen itself was missed early on. To diagnose hepatitis D using an antibody test, hepatitis B must also have been identified.

Hepatitis C

An accurate home test (Hepatitis C Check) is now available for identifying the antibody to the hepatitis C virus. Results take about a week.

The standard test is known as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). The antibody for hepatitis C is used to identify the virus but it may not show up for three to six months after the onset of the disease, so its absence is not necessarily an indication of a healthy liver.

A PCR for the RNA (the genetic material) of the virus may be performed if the physician still firmly believes the virus is present. Virus levels are also used to determine treatment effectiveness. It is important to remember, however, that viral levels are not an accurate measure of actual liver damage. Only a biopsy can determine this.

Tests may also be used to determine the genotype of the virus. Genotype 1, the most common, also requires more aggressive treatments. Patients with genotypes 2 and 3 respond well to treatment and, in some cases, may not need intensive antiviral medications.


Tests for Autoimmune Chronic Hepatitis. If a patient experiences symptoms of chronic active hepatitis for six months or more and a virus cannot be identified, then autoimmune hepatitis is usually suspected. There are other autoimmune liver diseases, however, that can confuse a diagnosis. To help confirm this condition, test results may show high levels of immune factors called serum globulins or certain antibodies to liver proteins. In some cases, a successful trial of steroid drugs may be the only way to diagnose autoimmune hepatitis.


A liver biopsy may be performed for acute viral hepatitis caught in a late stage or for severe cases of chronic hepatitis. Some experts are now recommending biopsies for all chronic hepatitis C patients, regardless of severity, because of the risk for liver damage even in patients without symptoms. No laboratory tests for enzyme or viral levels can truly determine the actual damage to the liver. Only a biopsy helps determine treatment possibilities, the extent of damage, and the long-term outlook.

The biopsy requires abdominal surgery, most often laparoscopy. This procedure requires general anesthesia and involves the following steps:

  • The physician makes one or more small incisions about half an inch to an inch in the abdomen.

  • Carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide is delivered through the incision to inflate the abdomen so that the involved area is visible.

  • The surgeon inserts a thin tube called a laparoscope that contains a tiny camera. Surgical instruments are also inserted through the incision to remove the liver tissue for biopsy.

  • It takes about an hour.
A less invasive procedure called a minilaparoscopy uses a smaller scope and may prove to reduce the time of the procedure.


General Prognosis for Acute Viral Hepatitis

In most cases of acute viral hepatitis, recovery is complete and the liver returns to normal within two to eight weeks. In a small number of cases of hepatitis B or C, the condition can be prolonged and recovery may not occur for a year. About 5% to 10% of these patients will experience a flare-up of symptoms in a milder form before full recovery. A few of these patients may go on to develop chronic hepatitis. In the rare event that fulminant hepatitis develops, the liver fails and gastrointestinal hemorrhage and brain damage (encephalopathy) occur, resulting in mental confusion, or even coma. Without liver transplantation, death occurs in up to 80% of these cases. Pregnant women with acute hepatitis B, C, or E are at higher risk for these complications. Other serious, and also rare, consequences of acute viral hepatitis are aplastic anemia (which can be fatal), pancreatitis, hypoglycemia, and polyarteritis, a serious inflammation of blood vessels. People who have been infected with a hepatitis virus continue to produce antibodies to that specific virus. This means that they cannot be reinfected with the same hepatitis virus again. Unfortunately, they are not protected from other types.

General Prognosis for Chronic Hepatitis

Chronic Persistent Hepatitis. Chronic persistent hepatitis is usually mild and nonprogressive or slowly progressive, causing limited damage to the liver. Cell injury in such cases is usually limited to the region of portal tracts , which contains vessels that carry blood to the liver from the digestive tract. In some cases, however, more extensive liver damage can occur over long periods of time and progress to chronic active hepatitis.

Chronic Active Hepatitis. If damage to the liver is extensive and cell injury occurs beyond the portal tract, chronic active hepatitis can develop. Significant liver damage has usually occurred by this time. Nearly every bodily process is affected by a damaged liver, including digestive, hormonal, and circulatory systems. Symptoms can significantly impair daily life.

  • Cirrhosis. If liver cells are destroyed between the portal tract and the central veins in the liver, progressive cell damage can build a layer of scar tissue over the liver, resulting in the condition known as cirrhosis. In such cases, the entire liver is threatened with malfunction and failure. If cirrhosis develops, the average survival time is about 10 years. The risk for cirrhosis is much higher in patients with hepatitis C than in those with hepatitis B. [For more information, see the report #75, Cirrhosis.]

  • Liver Cancer. The risk for liver cancer in patients with cirrhosis is about 14%. (Liver cancer is rare in patients who do not develop cirrhosis.)
[For outlook after infection from hepatitis viruses see Table Specific Hepatitis Viruses: Severity and Outlook.]

High Risk Chronic Hepatitis C Patients

Because there are millions of Americans now infected with chronic hepatitis C, experts have been justifiably concerned that there will be a significant number of cases of liver failure and liver cancer in the coming years.

Having an aggressive genetic type of the virus (specifically genotype 1) may be the strongest factor in predicting severity in chronic hepatitis C, patients in the following categories may also be at higher risk for developing severe liver damage than other patients:

  • Being male may pose a higher risk for severity than being female.

  • Developing hepatitis C at an older age.

  • Heavy alcohol users.

  • Co-infection with HIV or hepatitis B. Co-infection with hepatitis C and B significantly affects the outcome of these patients and may be more common than previously believed. This co-condition may reduce these patients' responses to interferon therapy and increase their risk of liver cancer.

  • A history of transfusions. (One study reported that they are twice as likely as intravenous drug users to develop cirrhosis.)

  • Being overweight, particularly if fat is distributed in the abdomen (an apple-shape). This condition may pose a higher risk for a fatty liver, which in turn is more apt to become scarred and cirrhotic.

  • Having large iron stores in the liver.


Hepatitis Virus

Onset and Severity of Acute Symptoms.

(For General Description of Acute Hepatitis Symptoms, see What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis?)

Risk for Becoming Chronic

General Outlook

Hepatitis A (formerly called infectious hepatitis). Does not directly kill liver cells. Unclear how the virus actually injures the liver.

Symptoms are usually mild, especially in children. Generally appear between two and six weeks after exposure to the virus. Adult patients more likely to have fever, jaundice, and itching that can last one to several months.

No risk.

Least serious of the common hepatitis viruses. Never becomes chronic. Fulminant hepatitis is the only major concern, but even if it develops, it is almost always less dangerous than with other viral types. Only one in a thousand patients are at risk for death from this complication. If hepatitis A infection occurs in patients with hepatitis C, however, superinfection can occur, even without cirrhosis, leading to a life-threatening form of fulminant hepatitis. (Infection of patients with hepatitis B who do not have cirrhosis does not appear to be as dangerous.)

Hepatitis B and D (formerly called serum hepatitis). The virus does not kill cells directly, but seems to activate cells in the immune system, which cause inflammation and damage in the liver.

Symptoms appear long after the initial infection, usually four to 24 weeks. Many patients may not even experience them or they may be mild and flu-like. About 10% to 20% of patients have a fever and rash. Nausea is not common. Sometimes general aching in the joints. The pain can resemble arthritis, affecting specific joints and accompanied by redness and swelling.

Between 5% and 15% of hepatitis B patients carry the virus throughout their lives, and about 25% of these carriers progress to chronic hepatitis. Hepatitis B can become chronic without an acute stage.

The risk for developing a chronic form of hepatitis D is the same as for hepatitis B alone.

Acute Form. Acute hepatitis B is lethal in 1% of patients, but even patients with mild symptoms can remain chronically infected with the virus. If a patient with hepatitis B becomes co-infected with hepatitis D, the consequences can be very serious. There is an increased risk for fulminant hepatitis.

Chronic Form. Worldwide, approximately two million people die each year from hepatitis B, globally making it the ninth leading cause of death. Even so, the great majority of people with hepatitis B have a good long-term outlook, especially children infected with the virus. About 5% to 10% eventually develop cirrhosis. Co-infection with hepatitis D or C increases the risk for cirrhosis. In Asia about 15% of people who have chronic hepatitis B develop liver cancer, but this high rate is not seen in other parts of the world. (One Italian study that followed a group of hepatitis B patients for 11 years found no development of liver cancer over that period of time.)

Hepatitis C.

If they appear at all, symptoms develop about a month or two after a person is infected. These are usually milder than those of hepatitis B. About 75% of patients show no signs of jaundice, and many do not experience any symptoms.

Infected people tend to become life-long carriers.

50% to 91% of infected people develop chronic hepatitis. At least 20 genetic variants have been identified. Even if antibodies eliminate one strain, others can maintain the infection.

Acute Form. Acute hepatitis C is rarely serious. In fact, there are no symptoms in up to 80% of acute cases.

Chronic Form. About 15% of chronic hepatitis C patients recover spontaneously, and about 25% have a mild and benign course with normal liver enzymes. Even among those with abnormal liver enzymes, most will have minimal liver damage. Still chronic hepatitis is responsible for between 8,000 to 10,000 US deaths a year. Between 20% and 30% of people with chronic hepatitis C develop cirrhosis after 20 years, and 4% of these patients eventually develop liver cancer. It should be noted that even in patients with cirrhosis, survival rates in one study were nearly 80% at ten years. Hepatitis C also can cause cryoglobulinemia, a condition associated with lymphoma and kidney disease. Having a specific genetic type of the virus may be the strongest factor in predicting later liver damage. Genotype 1 is the most serious; types 2 and 3 pose less danger. [See Box High Risk Hepatitis Patients.]

Patients with chronic hepatitis C may be at higher risk for other disorders including the following:

  • Certain autoimmune disorders, particularly hypothyroidism and rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Type 2 diabetes.
Some experts believe that hepatitis C may infect the central nervous system in certain patients, possibly accounting for the fatigue experienced by patients who have even relatively mild cases.

Hepatitis E.

Not serious except in pregnant women, when it can be life threatening.

Hepatitis G

Always chronic.

To date much research indicates it does not cause disease or even increase the severity of any accompanying virus, including HIV or other hepatitis viruses. Still, a few studies indicate some risk for liver damage. More studies are needed.

Prognosis of Patients with Autoimmune Hepatitis

The persistent form is usually benign and causes little trouble, although there is a very small risk that chronic persistent hepatitis can evolve to the active form. One study found that the overall outlook for treated patients with autoimmune hepatitis and no indication of hepatitis viruses was very favorable. In this study, the 10-year survival rate was 95%, similar to the same age group in the general population. The five-year survival rate for the chronic active form of this hepatitis is only 50% if the disease is not treated. (This rate may be higher in people with milder symptoms and less liver damage.) During the early years, patients are most at risk for liver failure and bleeding in the stomach and esophagus. This risk diminishes over time but is replaced by an increase in liver cancer rates and bleeding in the stomach and intestines. The risk for liver cancer is not as high, however, as with chronic viral hepatitis.


Periods of Highest Contagion

Hepatitis A is infectious for two to four weeks before symptoms develop and for a few days afterward. People with hepatitis B or C may become carriers of the virus after recovery, even if chronic disease does not develop and symptoms are not present. [ See Table Life-Style Precautions for Preventing Virus Transmission.]

Life Style Precautions for Preventing Virus Transmission



Hepatitis A and E.

Because hepatitis A and E are usually passed through contaminated food, people with these viruses should not prepare food for others; unfortunately, these viruses are most contagious before symptoms appear.

Sterilizing utensils or clothing is not necessary, but using hot water and thorough cleanings are essential. Heating a contaminated article for a minute kills the virus. Simple household bleach is effective for disinfecting hard surfaces. Still, utensils used by the patient for eating and cooking should be kept separate from those used by others.

Patients with viral hepatitis should abstain from sexual activity or take strict precautions if they cannot.

Abstain from alcohol. Moderate drinking (one or two drinks per evening) after recovery is not harmful for most people.

Hepatitis B and C.

All objects contaminated by blood from patients with hepatitis B or C must be handled with special care. (Restrictions on food preparation are not necessary for these hepatitis viruses.)

Patients with viral hepatitis should abstain from sexual activity or take strict precautions if they cannot. Infected patients should use condoms and contraceptives that prevent passage of the virus, possibly even in relationships that last for years.

Sexual partners, no matter what the duration of the relationship, should avoid sharing personal items, such as razors or toothbrushes, and women partners or infected women should abstain from sexual activity during menstruation. Either partner with infections that cause bleeding in the genital or urinary areas should avoid sexual activity until the infection is no longer active.

C Section delivery in infected mothers appears to protect the infants from contracting hepatitis C during delivery.

Preventing Infections when Traveling to High-Risk Countries

Travelers should take the following precautions:

  • Be vaccinated (note: vaccines can cause irreversible health damage to the brain/body, and risks largely exceed any benefits. See SPECIAL REPORTS on vaccines. Please review all the evidence on vaccines before deciding to vaccinate yourself or your children.) against hepatitis A and sometimes B if traveling for long periods of time to countries where epidemics occur.

  • Use only carbonated bottled water for brushing teeth and drinking. (It should be noted that ice cubes can carry infection.) Boiling water is the best method for eliminating infectious agents. There is some debate about how long to boil, but bringing the water to a good boil for at least a minute generally renders it safe to drink.

  • Heated food should be hot to the touch and eaten promptly.

  • Don't buy food from street vendors.

  • Beware of sliced fruit that may have been washed in contaminated water. Travelers themselves should peel all fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Avoid dairy products.

  • Avoid raw or undercooked meat and fish.

  • more information 1 Travel to Developing Countries.]

Vaccinations for Hepatitis A

Two vaccines (Havrix, Vaqta) are now available and both are very safe and effective for preventing hepatitis A (HAV). They can be given along with immune globulin and other vaccines. A 2001 study also strongly suggested they may be used interchangeably (ie, if one is given as the first vaccination, the other may safely be used as the booster). A combination vaccine (Twinrix) that contains both Havrix and Engerix-B (a hepatitis B vaccine) is now approved for people with risk factors for both hepatitis A and B. [Also see hepatitis B below.]

Candidates for HAV Vaccinations. Vaccinations for hepatitis A are recommended for the following individuals:

  • People in specific communities where outbreaks occur. Day care centers are highly associated with such outbreaks, although risks in such centers vary widely depending on the community, so universal immunization in day care centers is not recommended.

  • Sexually active homosexual men.

  • Patients with any form of chronic hepatitis. (It should be noted that the HAV vaccination should be given to patients before they reach advanced stages of liver disease, when there is a lower rate of response.)

  • Health care workers exposed to the virus.

  • Travelers to developing countries. (Travelers should also receive immune globulin if they are visiting high risk areas within four weeks of the vaccination.)

  • Experts now recommend routine vaccinations for children and adolescents in high-risk states. These states are Arizona, Alaska, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Missouri, Texas, Colorado, Arkansas, Montana, and Wyoming.

  • People who have had intimate exposure to patients with hepatitis A may be protected with immune globulin or possibly with the vaccine itself.

  • A recent study suggested that the vaccine could be helpful in migrant worker communities; this indication has not yet been officially recommended.
Although not yet routinely given to children under two, the vaccine is proving to be safe for infants. Infants who are born with the infection from mothers with HAV have a lower response to the vaccines. Investigators are also studying a higher-dose vaccine in these children. Early results are promising.

Side Effects . Although there are few side effects, allergic responses from the vaccination can occur. Hair loss has been reported in a very few people after a second administration. There may be pain at the injection site. (Havrix causes more pain at the injection site than Vaqta. )

Vaccinations for Hepatitis B

Several inactivated virus vaccines, including Recombivax HB, GenHevac B, Hepagene, and Engerix-B, can prevent hepatitis B (HBV) and are safe, even for infants and children. A triple-antigen hepatitis B vaccine (Hepacare) is proving to be effective for people who do not respond to the standard vaccines. Vaccination programs are also proving to reduce the risk for liver cancer. A combination vaccine (Twinrix) that contains Engerix-B and Havrix, a hepatitis A vaccine, is now approved for people with risk factors for both hepatitis A and B.

Until recently, the vaccine contained a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal. In response to concerns, professional organizations recommended suspending vaccinations in infants with noninfected mothers. In September 1999, a thimerosal-free vaccine became available and medical centers are now urged to continue vaccinations. Unfortunately even after the thimerosal-free vaccine became available, a number of hospitals still haven't restored vaccination of all infants. This is a safe vaccine and it is reducing the need for hospitalization in children. Parents should be sure their children are immunized.

Candidates for HBV Vaccinations. Experts now recommend that all infants and children not previously vaccinated (note: vaccines can cause irreversible health damage to the brain/body, and risks largely exceed any benefits. See SPECIAL REPORTS on vaccines. Please review all the evidence on vaccines before deciding to vaccinate yourself or your children.) be immunized by the time they reach seventh grade. Typical schedules for hepatitis B vaccinations in childhood are as follows:

  • All infants should receive the vaccine. High-risk infants (particularly those with mothers infected with HBV) should be treated with immune globulin and a series of vaccinations at birth, one month, and six months. Low risk-infants should also be given the first dose preferably at birth, and the second at four months, and the third between six and 18 months later. (Children appear be protected even if the booster shots are given a year apart after the first dose, although high-risk children should still be sure to receive their vaccinations on the short schedule.)

  • Children who are between 11 and 12 and who have not been immunized should receive two or three doses of the vaccine (depending on the brand) given over a few months. Evidence suggests that the two-dose vaccine is very effective and may improve both costs and compliance in adolescents compared to the three-dose regimen.

  • Hepatitis B vaccine protection lasts at least eight to 10 years. Booster shots after that may be recommended depending on continuing risk.
The following adults are at very high risk and should be vaccinated (note: vaccines can cause irreversible health damage to the brain/body, and risks largely exceed any benefits. See SPECIAL REPORTS on vaccines. Please review all the evidence on vaccines before deciding to vaccinate yourself or your children.):

  • Healthcare and public safety workers who may be exposed to blood products, such as from accidental needlesticks. Such individuals have a risk for hepatitis B virus that ranges from 15% to 30%. (It is unclear if patients, in general, have any significant risk for infection for hepatitis C.)

  • People in the same household as HBV infected individuals. (Unvaccinated (note: vaccines can cause irreversible health damage to the brain/body, and risks largely exceed any benefits. See SPECIAL REPORTS on vaccines. Please review all the evidence on vaccines before deciding to vaccinate yourself or your children.) people who have had intimate exposure to people with HBV may be protected with immune globulin, which is sometimes administered with the vaccine.)

  • Travelers to developing countries.

  • Patients who require transfusions and have not been infected with HBV. (Those with blood clotting disorders should have the vaccination administered under the skin not injected in the muscle.)
Other people at risk who would benefit from vaccinations are the following:

  • Sexually active people with multiple partners.

  • Patients and workers in mental institutions and morticians.

  • Patients on hemodialysis. (People on hemodialysis may need larger doses or boosters; they also may need to be revaccinated (note: vaccines can cause irreversible health damage to the brain/body, and risks largely exceed any benefits. See SPECIAL REPORTS on vaccines. Please review all the evidence on vaccines before deciding to vaccinate yourself or your children.) if blood tests indicate they are losing immunity.)

  • People who use injected drugs.

  • Pregnant women at risk for the virus should be vaccinated (note: vaccines can cause irreversible health damage to the brain/body, and risks largely exceed any benefits. See SPECIAL REPORTS on vaccines. Please review all the evidence on vaccines before deciding to vaccinate yourself or your children.); there is no evidence that the vaccine is dangerous to the fetus.

  • People receiving treatments or who have conditions that suppress the immune system may need the vaccination, although its benefits for this group are unclear except for those at high risk, such as people with HIV or spleen abnormalities.
The regimen in adults is typically three doses given over six months. One study reported that older adults would benefit from a fourth dose without incurring serious side effects. People with alcoholism may need high doses. A small percentage of people do not develop immunity even after a vaccine has been given repeatedly. A more potent vaccine is proving to be effective in these people; it loses its effect after five years in about a third of those who receive it.

Soreness at the injection site is the most common side effect. There have been some reports of nerve inflammation after vaccinations for hepatitis B, and there has been some concern about three small studies associating the vaccine with an insignificant increase in multiple sclerosis. Studies in 2001, however, have found no evidence to support these concerns. Nonetheless, some groups oppose the vaccination in children who are not in high-risk groups. It should be strongly stressed that worldwide, 65 million people with chronic hepatitis are expected to die from liver disease. And, vaccinations are saving lives. For example, in Taiwan, where infection rates are high and infants are at risk for hepatitis B from infected mothers, vaccination programs have significantly reduced the risk for liver cancer.

Prevention of Hepatitis C

No vaccines are available, but immune globulin helps protect against developing hepatitis C after transfusions. Periodic doses of immune globulin in sexual partners of infected people also appear to confer protection.


Treatments for Acute Viral Hepatitis

For mild cases of acute viral hepatitis, no drug therapy or other treatment is either available or necessary. Hospitalization is needed only for people at high risk for complications, such as pregnant women, elderly people, patients with other serious conditions, or those who have severe nausea and vomiting and need to have fluids administered intravenously.

The primary goals for managing acute viral hepatitis are to provide adequate nutrition, to prevent additional damage to the liver, and to prevent transmission to others. [ See What Precautions Should People with Hepatitis Take? above.] The following tips may be useful:

  • No vitamins or special diets have been proven to be particularly beneficial. Eating many small snacks during the day, with larger ones in the morning, may help prevent weight loss while reducing the severity of nausea. Patients might be able to tolerate high-caloric drinks to supplement their regular diet.

  • In some cases, the physician may prescribe drugs that have minimal impact on the liver to alleviate the symptoms of hepatitis, such as nausea or severe itching.

  • All patients should abstain from alcohol and sexual contact during the acute phase.

  • Although most patients with hepatitis experience fatigue and require more rest than usual, they can be as physically active as they want without affecting recovery. In fact, patients should be encouraged to be as active as they can.

  • Depression is common, particularly in people used to an active life. Patients should be reassured that in the great a majority of hepatitis cases, recovery is complete.

  • The liver processes many types of medications, so as soon as hepatitis is diagnosed, the patient should stop taking all drugs, including over-the-counter medications, except those a physician specifically prescribes or recommends. Of special note, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) apparently increases liver enzymes in hepatitis C patients and therefore should be avoided. Ibuprofen is one the common pain killers known as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Other NSAIDs include aspirin and naproxen. The usual alternative to an NSAID is acetaminophen (Tylenol). It should be noted that acetaminophen also can be toxic in the liver, particularly when drinking alcohol.
After the onset of acute hepatitis, periodic visits to the physician for repeat blood tests are necessary, the frequency of which depends on how well the patient feels. If symptoms still occur after three months and laboratory tests still indicate active presence of the virus, the patient should be evaluated every month. If symptoms persist beyond six months, a liver biopsy may be required to determine any liver damage.

Treatment for Fulminant Acute Hepatitis

For those who develop fulminant hepatitis and liver failure, treatment is aimed at the affected organs and systems. No medications, including corticosteroids, have any effect against the condition itself. Liver transplantation is currently the only life-saving treatment for fulminant acute hepatitis and has survival rates of up to 60%. Without liver transplantation, the chance of survival is only 20%.


General Guidelines for Treating Chronic Hepatitis B and C

Drug treatments for chronic hepatitis B and C are aimed at reducing or preventing liver damage and boosting or modifying the immune system to promote its attack on the viruses. The important agents for treating chronic hepatitis are interferons (particularly interferon alpha) and nucleoside analogues (ribavirin, lamivudine, famciclovir, and adefovir), which act directly against the virus. They are being used as sole therapy and in combinations. These drugs are used differently depending on the specific hepatitis. Other drugs with different mechanisms are also being tested. [See individual discussions of treatments for hepatitis B and C below.] Smokers with hepatitis C should make every attempt to quit, as research now indicates that smoking is associated with increased severity of the infection.

Treatment of Autoimmune Chronic Hepatitis

Patients with autoimmune hepatitis who have mild symptoms and slight inflammation of the liver do not require any treatment except to alleviate symptoms. They should be monitored, however, for any signs of disease progression. Severe autoimmune hepatitis is a life-threatening condition and requires intensive therapy. [See the individual discussion of treatments for autoimmune hepatitis below.]

Gauging Treatment Success

Treatment outcomes are assessed by testing levels of aminotransferase to determine liver damage and using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to detect the amount of virus left. After treatment, however, some patients may have low levels of virus and high indicators of liver damage while others display opposite results. It is not yet clear how to weigh these criteria in evaluating the overall health of the patient.

Description of Interferons

Types of Interferons

Interferons are natural proteins that activate certain immune functions in the body and have anti-viral properties.

The natural interferons being used for chronic hepatitis B, C or both are called type I interferons and include the following:

  • Interferon alpha 2b (Intron A). (Used for both hepatitis B and C.)

  • Interferon alpha 2a (Roferon-A). (Mostly used for hepatitis C.)

  • Interferon alfa-n1 (Wellferon). (Approved but mostly used in Canada for hepatitis C.)

  • They are given by injection and need to be taken three times a week.

  • Newer synthetic interferons have been developed that are showing particularly promise:

  • Interferon alfacon-1 (Infergen). This agent is referred to as a consensus interferon (CIFN) because it was genetically developed using the most commonly occurring amino acid sequences from each of the natural type 1 alpha interferons. It is usually given three times a week when used as initial treatment. CIFN is five to 10 times more biologically active than natural type 1 interferons.

  • Pegylated interferon (PegINF). Pegylated interferons employ a small molecule called polythelene glycol (PEG), which attaches to a protein and extends the activity of the interferon. This action allows the drug to be taken only once a week. Currently only alfa-2b (Peg-Intron) has been approved. PegINF alfa-2a (Pegasys) is waiting approval.

General Benefits

In those who respond, studies are showing improved symptoms, a normal long-term survival rate, and, in some, no return of the disease.

Of note, some evidence suggests that even in the absence of antiviral effects, interferon may reduce important factors that contribute to cirrhosis, inflammation and fibrosis (scarring). It may even have some effect on reversing liver damage. If this evidence holds up, then even patients whose viral and liver enzyme counts remain high or steady may still benefit from long-term use of these agents.

Some studies also have suggested that interferon may help prevent progression to liver cancer in hepatitis C (but not hepatitis B) patients with early-stage cirrhosis.

For specific effects see How is Hepatitis B Treated? or How Is Hepatitis C Treated?, below.]

Interferon Candidates

Candidates for this treatment include the following:

  • Those who have detectable levels of the virus and have above-normal levels of alanine aminotransferase for at least six months.
Ineligible patients include the following:

  • Women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant soon.

  • Patients with advanced cirrhosis. (It is unclear if the drug improves survival in patients with advanced cirrhosis and, in any case, it may be dangerous for them.)

  • Patients with fluid in the abdomen.

  • Patients, including children, with any serious medical (particularly kidney, liver, autoimmune, or heart disease) or psychiatric problems.
Unfortunately, the percentage of patients who benefit over the long-term using interferon as sole therapy is small.

Enhancing the Effects

Some drugs may be used to enhance the effects:

  • A very short course of corticosteroids may be used initially in some cases to boost the effect of interferon.

  • Initial effects of the drug may also be enhanced in certain patients by reducing iron levels through a series of blood-drawings before starting interferon.

  • A 2001 study suggested that zinc supplements may boost the effects of interferon.
Other drug combinations are used depending on the virus.

Disease Recurrence

In both hepatitis B and C, the disease often persists or returns despite treatment. The virus continually generates many "mutant viruses" that differ just slightly from the parent virus. These mutated viruses may be resistant to interferons and so, over time, the drugs become ineffective.

Side Effects and Complications

Common side effects of any interferon are flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, muscle aches) that usually occur within six hours and gradually decline over a week or two. (Pegylated interferon may pose a higher risk for these symptoms than the natural interferons.)

Chronic or more serious effects include the following:

  • Emotional and mental changes. Depression can be very severe and cases of suicidal thoughts have been reported. Other mental and emotional symptoms include anxiety, amnesia, confusion, irritability, impaired concentration, decreased alertness, memory problems, and mental slowing.

  • Changes in sensation.

  • Weight loss.

  • Skin rashes.

  • Hair loss.

  • Gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and, in severe cases intestinal bleeding and ulcers.

  • Fatigue and general weakness.

  • Back pain.

  • Complications in the lungs, including exacerbation of asthma. In severe cases, interferon can cause shortness of breath, inflammation in the lungs, and pneumonia.

  • Possible negative effects on cholesterol and lipid levels.

  • Heart rhythm disturbances, which, in rare cases, can be serious.

  • Mild anemia.

  • Interferon often causes a drop in platelet and white blood cell counts, increasing susceptibility to bacterial infections.

  • May trigger an autoimmune response, possibly causing anemia, diabetes, lupus-like symptoms, hypothyroidism, or even autoimmune hepatitis.

  • Complications in the eye, including bleeding that, in some cases, may lead to loss of vision if not detected promptly.

  • Rare reports of acute pancreatitis.

  • In children, interferon therapy temporarily disrupts growth.
Patients have a difficult time with prolonged therapy. Over 20% drop out if treatment lasts longer than two years. Depression is the most common reason for withdrawal. (New long-acting forms, such as pegylated interferon, may improve these drop-out rates.)


Interferon alpha and nucleoside analogues are the important treatments at this time for hepatitis B. At this time interferon alpha-2b is the standard agent but experts expect the nucleoside analogue lamivudine to replace it as the primary agent. Lamivudine is not only effective, it also less expensive than the interferon. Researchers speculate that future therapy for hepatitis B may need to involve combination treatment to achieve the greatest possible viral reduction and to minimize the chances of drug resistance.

Interferon Alpha for Hepatitis B

Interferon alpha-2b (Intron) is the standard drug for hepatitis B. It has eliminated the virus and sustained significant remission in 25% to 40% of patients with chronic hepatitis B. The drug is usually taken by injection every day for 16 weeks. (It does not appear to be effective for hepatitis D.) Unfortunately, even in hepatitis B, the virus recurs in almost all cases, although this recurring mutation may be weaker than the original strain.

Administering the drug for longer periods may produce sustained remission in more patients while still being safe. Interferon is also effective in eligible children, although long-term effects are unclear. A 2001 study suggested that it may temporarily disrupt growth, but it should be noted that hepatitis itself, even without interferon treatment, can compromise growth. [For a detailed description of Interferon and eligibility, see Box Interferons.]

Lamivudine and Other Nucleoside Analogues

Nucleoside analogues are drugs that can block viral replication, and they are important in hepatitis B. The primary agent used in hepatitis is lamivudine. It can be taken orally, has few severe side effects, and is less expensive than interferon. Experts expect it to become the first-line treatment for hepatitis B. Preliminary data suggest that other nucleoside analogues, including ganciclovir, adefovir, entecavir, and famciclovir, are also active against the hepatitis B virus and may useful in combination to reduce drug resistance to lamivudine.

Success Rates. The nucleoside analogue lamivudine (Zeffix) has reduced viral count in over half of hepatitis B patients who have taken it as sole therapy for about a year. It also appears to significantly reduce the risk for liver damage and cirrhosis. The drug even suppresses hepatitis B viral replication in HIV-positive patients and liver transplant recipients. It appears to be effective for children as well as adults. The drug may reduce the risk for cirrhosis, although it is not clear if it protects against liver cancer, particularly in patients who have harbored the virus since childhood.

Loss of Effectiveness. Although response rates can be very high for about a year, they tend to decrease with time in many patients. This is caused by emergence of mutated viruses that are resistant to the drug. Resistance may be particularly high in populations where the virus is common, according to a Korean study from an area where incidence of hepatitis B is high. The specific genetic hepatitis B strain may be an important marker for predicting resistance. Other nucleosides, such as adefovir and entecavir, may be able to suppress these mutated viruses.

Side Effects. Lamivudine causes muscle aches and chills but does not appear to have some of the distressing side effects of interferon, such as depression, hair loss, weight loss, or a drop in white blood cells (leukopenia). Of some concern, however, is eventual resistance to the drug in many patients.


A number of drugs are being studied that boost the body's own immune system to fight the virus.

Thymalfasin. Thymalfasin (Zadaxin) is a synthetic version of a peptide derived from the thymus gland (which produces immune factors call T-cells). It is injected and has few side effects. It appears to be safe for hepatitis B patients when used alone or in combination. Response rates of over 60% have been reported in combination with an interferon. A trial using thymalfasin with lamivudine is under way.

Vaccines as Treatments. Some hepatitis B vaccines, including Hepagene, are being investigated for treating as well as preventing hepatitis B.

Whey Protein. When a protein in milk called casein coagulates, a watery liquid called whey and solid white lumps called curds form. (Curds are the basis for cheese.) One interesting trial studied patients who consumed a supplement made from whey (Immunocal) twice a day. After 12 weeks hepatitis B patients showed improved biochemical measurements indicating possible benefits on the disease process. (It had no effect on hepatitis C patients.)


Interferons Alone and in Combination with Ribavirin for Hepatitis C

Interferon, either alone or with ribavirin (a nucleoside analogue), is the only treatment now available for chronic hepatitis C. The goal of this treatment is to reduce viral levels to zero.

Specific Agents Used. A number of natural and synthetic interferons are now available or awaiting approval for hepatitis C. They can be used alone in some cases or in a combination with ribavirin (Rebetol), a nucleoside analogue. Ribavirin is poor at inducing initial responses alone but it can double sustained response rates when combined with interferon. Interferons being use are the following:

Natural interferons used in the US for hepatitis C including the following:

  • Interferon alpha-2a (Intron). The combination of interferon alpha-2b and ribavirin is available as Rebetron. This combination is showing double the success rates of interferon alone.

  • Interferon alpha-2b (Roferon).
Synthetic interferons include the following:

  • Alfacon-1 (Infergen) This agent, also called consensus interferon, is now approved for hepatitis C.

  • Pegylated interferons. These synthetic agents are a long-acting formulation of either interferon 2a or 2b. Currently alfa-2b (Peg-Intron) is the only pegylated interferon approved in the US. It is available alone or in combination with ribavirin (Rebetol) for hepatitis C adult patients not previously treated with interferon alfa and who have early-stage liver disease. Approval for alfa-2a (Pegasys) has been delayed as of the date of this report. Some evidence suggests that PegINF may produce a unique response, a rapid first phase and a second slower phase.
Benefits of Interferon Regimens

Interferon alone has been successful in inducing a good initial response in chronic hepatitis, although it does not usually sustain this response over time. There is even some evidence to suggest that interferons may be used during the acute stage to prevent chronic hepatitis. Interferon combinations with ribavirin and other investigative agents are improving early sustained response times in patients with chronic hepatitis C. Combinations with the newer synthetic interferons are particularly promising. It should be noted, however, that combinations have more side effects and are less well tolerated than interferon alone. Some studies have also suggested that interferon may help prevent progression to liver cancer in hepatitis C patients with early-stage cirrhosis. (A higher total dose, rather than a longer duration of treatment, appears to be the critical factor for protection.) In patients who have been treated for hepatitis-C related liver cancer, one small study also suggested that interferon may help prevent cancer recurrence after tumor removal.

[For a specific information see Boxes Description of Interferons and Response Rates in Hepatitis C Patients Receiving Interferons and Their Combinations .]

Candidates. The best hepatitis C candidates for interferon treatments are those at greatest risk for cirrhosis. Patients with mild disease, particularly those with normal liver enzyme (transaminase) levels, may not need treatment at all. People with early stage (compensated) cirrhosis may be good candidates for interferon combination treatments, including with the newer interferon forms, particularly PEG-IFN.

Factors suggesting a higher risk for cirrhosis include the following:

  • Detectable virus levels as determined by an assay test.

  • High levels of aminotransferase enzyme for more than six months. (Those with normal liver enzyme levels appear to have almost no risk for liver damage, even if the virus is evident.)

  • Indication of liver scarring.

  • Moderate degree of liver inflammation and severe tissue damage.
Patients who are not good candidates and are usually ineligible are the following:

  • Women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant soon. (The combination therapy poses a particular risk for unborn children.)

  • Patients with advanced cirrhosis. It is unclear if the drug improves survival in patients with advanced cirrhosis and, in any case, it may be dangerous for them.

  • Patients with fluid in the abdomen.

  • Patients with any serious psychiatric problems.

  • Substance abusers. Although patients with addictions to drugs, alcohol, or both are not medically ineligible for antiviral treatment, their psychologic side effects of interferon can be very severe, sustained response rates are low, and their compliance to treatment regimens is often poor. Most physicians then will not treat this patient group until their addictions have been treated. Nevertheless, with careful monitoring, a 2001 study reported that patients with drug addiction but no other severe psychologic problems may be treated successfully and achieve sustained responses similar to other patients.

  • Patients with kidney or heart disease.

  • Patients with anemia or risk factors for anemia. These patients should not take the combination treatment, although they may be candidates for interferon alone.
The response of children to interferon appears to be similar to those in adults, although large studies are needed to confirm this.

Side Effects of the Combination Treatment. The side effects of interferon alone, discussed above, may occur more often in the combination treatment. [ See Box Description of Interferons.]

Ribavirin used in the combination treatment adds the following side effects:

  • Hemolytic anemia. It is reversible and usually stabilizes after a month or two of treatment. However, some patients may become so anemic that they have to withdraw. This effect can also worsen heart disease and so patients with a history of significant heart problems should not be treated with ribavirin.

  • Skin disorders.

  • Coughing and shortness of breath.

  • Emotional and neurologic symptoms, such as severe sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety.

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (heartburn, and weight loss).

  • Temporary thyroid dysfunction (either over or under activity).

  • The combination of both drugs poses a very high risk for birth defects in children whose mothers used the drugs while pregnant.
Side effects from the combination result in treatment discontinuation in 8% to 21% of patients. The most frequent reason in the US is from depression.

Determining Treatment Success with Interferon or the Ribavirin Combination

Physicians gauge treatment success and approaches based on different factors, including the following:

  • If the patient responds to the drug right away (responders).

  • Whether the response is sustained (sustained response).

  • Whether the virus comes back again and requires retreatment (relapsing patients).
It should be noted that the disease often persists or returns despite treatment. The virus continually generates many mutant viruses that differ just slightly from the parent virus. These variants, known as quasispecies, can remain unaffected by antiviral agents, including interferon. Some experts believe that this may be due to the wide fluctuations in current interferon treatment, which allow mutations to evolve during the periods when the drug is at low levels in the blood stream. It should be noted that patients with normal liver enzyme levels appear to have almost no risk for liver damage, even if viral levels persist after treatment.

The approach to treatment with interferon or combinations is multi-leveled depending on whether the patient has had no prior treatment, if the patient achieves a sustained response, if the patient relapses and needs retreatment, or if the patient has not responded. [For specific study results on these treatment phases see Table Response Rates in Hepatitis C Patients Receiving Interferons and Combinations.]

Responders. Patients are considered responders when their viral count drops very rapidly within the first few weeks of treatment and it is still undetectable at 12 weeks. One difficulty in deciding when to stop treatment even in responders is the inability to predict at 12 weeks which of these patients will relapse and which ones will have sustained response.

Some factors that reduce the chances for a both a first and sustained response are as follows:

  • Being older.

  • Having the aggressive viral genotype 1.

  • Having a high viral load (more than 2 million/mL). Extending treatment in such people can often nearly duplicate the responses achieved by patients with lower viral loads.

  • The presence of cirrhosis.
African Americans have a significantly lower response rate than other ethnic groups. Researchers do not yet understand the cause of this disparity, although one theory is that they may have a higher rate of co-infection with hepatitis B.

Sustained Responders. Patients who are free of the virus longer than six months are considered to be sustained responders. Between 90% and 95% of these patients remain free of the infection for at least four to 10 years. Unfortunately, less than half of treated patients are sustained responders. The factors that increase or reduce the chances for a sustained response are also the same as those having an initial response [ see above ]. It should be noted that dramatically fewer African-American patients (2% to 3%) achieve a sustained response than Caucasian (12%) or Asian (28%) patients.

Relapsing Patients. A relapse occurs in patients who respond initially but the disease recurs, most likely because of the development of mutant strains that may be resistant to the drugs used or because the original dose was too low.

Nonresponders. Patients are considered to be nonresponders if the virus is still detectable 12 weeks after interferon alone or 24 weeks of combination therapy. In general, physicians stop treatment at this point. However, failure can be due to different factors that should be assessed before stopping treatment, particularly in patients who had interferon alone:

  • Interferon dose is too low.

  • Patient did not comply fully with the treatment.

  • Patient was consuming alcohol.
Extending treatment or testing alternative treatments may be an option for some patients, particularly those who had a so-called breakthrough at some point in the initial treatment. (During a breakthrough there is a temporary reduction in liver enzymes or disappearance of the virus.) It should also be noted that there is some evidence that interferon still reduces liver scarring and may even reduce the risk for liver cancer in some patients even if the treatment does not eliminate the virus.

Response Rates in Hepatitis C Patients Receiving Interferons and Their Combinations

Sustained Response Rates for Initial Treatment

Response Rates for Retreatment of Relapsing Patients

Response Rates for Retreatment of Nonresponders

Natural Inteferons (sole therapy)

Standard interferon at standard doses for six months: 7% to 20% sustained responders. Standard interferon alone taken for 12 to 24 months: 15% to 30%. (Not generally effective in patients with genotype 1.)

A higher dose of interferon in patients. (Retreatment at the standard dose achieves only a 4% response.)

Little benefit from sole therapy. Studies suggest a significant and rapid reduction in viral levels, with daily high doses of interferon, but the effects do not appear to be sustained when the patients return to a three-times-weekly regimen.

Combination Natural Interferons plus ribavirin

Combination interferon and ribavirin: 30% to 40% sustained responders. (48 weeks of combination therapy may be the best option for patients with genotype 1.)

Response rates are from 30% to 49%.

Overall response rates in patients who failed interferon alone are less than 20%. In genotype 2 and 3, response rates can be about 30%. Higher doses of interferon may be needed for any significant response in patients with genotype 1 (18% for high doses versus 7% with lower doses in one study.)

Pegylated interferon (PEGINF) (sole therapy)

Pegylated interferon (PEGIFN) alone, either alfa 2a or 2b: Sustained response of 39%. Better sustained responses than standard interferon alone. (In one study, 30% of patients with cirrhosis had a sustained response with PEGIFN alfa-2a.)

Under investigation.

Under investigation.

Combination PEGINF plus ribavirin

Combination pegylated interferon alfa-2b (Peg-Intron) and ribavirin (Rebetol) has been approved. In one study 56% sustained response, higher than interferon combination. It was effective even in genotype 1 patients.

Under investigation.

Under investigation.

Interferon alfacon-1 (consensus interferon)

12% to 20% sustained responders. Overall rates similar to interferon alpha 2b but it was significantly better for patients with HCV genotype 1 (7% versus 0). One small study report a 55% sustained response with consensus interferon plus ribavirin in patients with type 1 genotype.

58% response rate after 48 weeks (one study).

Response rate of 13% (one study).

Investigative Approaches using Interferon

In a 2001 study an interferon/amantadine achieved a sustained response of 45.5% compared to 28.7% with interferon alone.

Triple therapy (interferon alfa, ribavirin, and amantadine). Early studies were promising but later results could not confirm these early successes. More research is needed. [ See Amantadine, below.]

Investigative Drugs for Hepatitis C

Amantadine. Amantadine (Symmetrel) is a drug commonly used for Parkinson's disease, but which may have some antiviral effects. Investigators are studying combinations of amantadine with interferon and triple therapy with interferon and ribavirin. More research is needed to determine if they have significant benefits. [See Table Response Rates in Hepatitis C Patients Receiving Interferons and Their Combinations.] In some cases, the side effects of amantadine can be severe, and include vertigo, insomnia, nervousness, and depression. They are particularly disabling among older patients who receive inappropriately high doses.

Thymalfasin. Thymalfasin (Zadaxin) is a synthetic version of a peptide derived from the thymus gland (which is responsible for maturation of immune factors call T-cells). It is being used for hepatitis B and is under investigation for hepatitis C in combinations with natural interferons and pegylated interferon.

Ursodeoxycholic Acid. Ursodiol, or ursodeoxycholic acid, a drug ordinarily used for gallstones, improves aminotransferase levels. It has no effect against the virus, but may be useful in combination with interferon.

Protease Inhibitors. Protease inhibitors (similar to those used for HIV) are under investigation for hepatitis C patients who fail other treatments. They are especially useful in patients who are infected with both viruses.

Alternative Treatments

Many patients with serious or chronic diseases are now investigating alternative medications.

Among the natural substances being investigated for hepatitis are ginseng, glycyrrhizin (a compound in licorice), catechin (found in green tea), and silymarin (found in milk thistle). A 2001 review analyzed studies on ten herbal remedies for hepatitis C. None showed significant benefits except silymarin, which improve liver enzyme levels. Other studies are also reporting benefits on the liver from silymarin.

Chinese herbal medicines, including bing gan ling, yi zhu, and yi er gan tang, also appeared to be beneficial. Of specific concern, however, are studies suggesting that up to 30% of herbal patent remedies imported from China having been laced with potent pharmaceuticals such as phenacetin and steroids. Most problems reported occur in herbal remedies imported from Asia, with one study reporting a significant percentage of such remedies containing toxic metals. Patients interested in these remedies should ask their physicians about clinical studies.

It should be strongly noted that herbal remedies are not necessarily harmless simply because they are natural (or marketed as natural), and their quality is not regulated except in clinical studies. [ See Box Warnings on Alternative and So-Called Natural Remedies.]

Warnings on Alternative and So-Called Natural Remedies

It should be strongly noted that alternative or natural remedies are not regulated and their quality is not publicly controlled. In addition, any substance that can affect the body's chemistry can, like any drug, produce side effects that may be harmful. Even if studies report positive benefits from herbal remedies, the compounds used in such studies are, in most cases, not what are being marketed to the public.

There have been a number of reported cases of serious and even lethal side effects from herbal products. In addition, some so-called natural remedies were found to contain standard prescription medication.

The following warnings are of particular importance for people with hepatitis:

  • Kava kava (an herb used for anxiety and tension) can be toxic to the liver and cause severe hepatitis and even liver failure if taken excessively.

  • Black licorice (not the red candy) can increase blood pressure and may be harmful in people with hypertension.
The following website is building a database of natural remedy brands that it tests and rates. Not all are available yet.

The Food and Drug Administration has a program called MEDWATCH for people to report adverse reactions to untested substances, such as herbal remedies and vitamins (call 800-332-1088).


About 85% of people with chronic active autoimmune hepatitis do not have severe symptoms at all. In these cases, physicians often must weigh the risk for progression to a more serious condition against the long-term adverse effects of the treatments used for autoimmune hepatitis. Because of effective treatment options and in spite a high rate of relapse, long-term survival rates in patients with autoimmune hepatitis are excellent.


Immunosuppressants are agents that block factors in the immune system and help reduce inflammation and symptoms of autoimmune hepatitis.

Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids, prednisone and prednisolone, are the standard agents. They produce remission of symptoms in about 80% of patients with autoimmune hepatitis. For most patients, steroids also reduce symptoms within three months, improve liver function within six months, and restore liver health within two years. Between 10% and 20% of patients continue to deteriorate despite steroid treatment, although higher doses may help some of these people. (Steroids are generally not useful for chronic hepatitis B or C, and, in fact, suppressing the immune system in these patients can encourage the viruses to replicate more quickly.)

Treatment usually needs to continue for about two years before the disease is in complete remission. Usually, steroids are stopped when disease symptoms have disappeared, when blood tests show that aminotransferase levels are less than two times normal, and liver biopsies reveal no active cell damage. Steroid medications must be withdrawn very slowly. Patients who are very elderly or who have advanced (decompensated) cirrhosis are not good candidates for this treatment.

Unfortunately, remission rarely lasts more than three years. About half of patients relapse within six months, and only about 20% of patients achieve remission (are disease-free) for more than five years. Readministering prednisone therapy after relapse achieves another remission in 80% of patients.

Side effects can be very distressing and sometimes serious; they include weight gain, skin problems, moon-shaped face, high blood pressure, diabetes, cataracts, mental disturbances, infections, and osteoporosis.

Azathioprine. Azathioprine (Imuran) is often prescribed along with steroids to help reduce severe side effects caused by using steroids alone. Azathioprine also suppresses the immune system and helps prevent relapse, but the drug will not induce remission by itself. In one promising study, patients who continued to use azathioprine after prednisolone was withdrawn had no relapses for at least a year. Unfortunately, long-term use of azathioprine may increase the risk for cancer, although studies indicate that this risk is very low.

Cyclosporine A. Cyclosporine A (Neoral) is another immunosuppressant and may prove to be a safe and effective alternative to corticosteroids.

Liver transplantation

If all therapies fail and the disease becomes life threatening, liver transplantation may be performed.


Liver transplantation may be indicated in the following patients:

  • Those who have developed life-threatening cirrhosis and who have a life expectancy of more than 12 years.

  • Patients with liver cancer that has not spread beyond the liver may also be candidates.
Current five-year survival rates after liver transplantation are between 60% and 80%. Patients also report improved quality of life and mental functioning after liver transplantation. Patients should seek medical centers that have performed more than 50 transplants per year and produced better-than-average results.

Unfortunately, in about half of all chronic hepatitis patients, the disease recurs.

  • One study of patients with hepatitis C reported five year risks for viral recurrence of 80% and for cirrhosis of 10%.

  • Viral recurrence is also high in hepatitis B patients. Recurrence in hepatitis B has been significantly reduced using monthly infusions of hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIg), with or without lamivudine. These injections may need to be administered life long. Lamivudine may also be helpful in preventing recurrence of hepatitis B after liver transplantation in children as well as adults.

  • Three quarters of the patients who receive transplant for autoimmune hepatitis experienced organ rejection, and half required retransplantation within a year. Autoimmune hepatitis recurred in 25% of patients studied. (According to one 2000 study, transplantation in these patients may improve accompanying autoimmune disorders in half of patients who experienced it.) Children who develop autoimmune hepatitis after liver transplantation may respond to corticosteroid and azathioprine therapy.
At the time of this report, 18,700 patients were waiting for a liver transplant. Only about 5,000 transplants were performed in 2000. And, given the large number of people with hepatitis C, this situation will almost certainly worsen over the following years.


National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), Office of Communications and Public Liaison, NIDDK, NIH, Building 31, Room 9A04, 31 Center Drive, MSC 2560, Bethesda, MD 20892-2560 or on the Internet (

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hepatitis Branch, 1600 Clifton Road NE., Mail Stop G37, Atlanta, GA 30333. For a special number on hepatitis Call (888-4HE-PCDC) or (888-443-7232) or on the Internet ( Scroll down to "Hepatitis."
This is an important source on hepatitis.

American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, 1729 King Street, Suite 100, Alexandria, VA 22314 Call (703-299-9766) or on the Internet (
This group publishes the journal Hepatology. For abstracts on the web (

Hepatitis Foundation International, 30 Sunrise Terrace, Cedar Grove, New Jersey 07009 Call (800-891-0707) or (973-239-1035) or on the Internet (
This organization focuses just on viral hepatitis. It provides educational materials, offers support by phone, and gives referral to other physicians.

American Liver Foundation, 75 Maiden Lane, Suite 603, New York, NY 10038 Call (800-GO LIVER) or (800-465-4837) or on the Internet (
The foundation has regional chapters, some with support groups. The hepatitis hotline provides patient information, brochures, and video and audio tapes.

American Gastrointestinal Association, 7910 Woodmont Ave., Seventh Floor, Bethesda, MD 20814. Call (301-654-2055) or on the Internet (
This is an association for physicians and other professionals. They provide names of gastroenterologists in local areas.

Immunization Action Coalition, 1573 Selby Avenue, Suite 234, St. Paul MN 55104 Call (651-647-9009) or on the Internet (

On the Internet:

The Hepatitis Information Network (

Hepatitis Central (

For information on organ transplantation, United Network for Organ Sharing (

Excellent site on liver diseases from Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center:

A patient-to-patient support forum: (



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