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What Is Hepatitis?

Updated on November 24, 2014

What is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis simply means inflammation of the liver. Untreated, some forms of hepatitis can lead to liver damage that impairs the ability of the liver to function normally. The liver is the largest organ in the human body and weighs, on average, about 3-1/2 pounds.

Your liver is very important and performs a variety of functions including:

  • Secreting bile necessary for proper digestion and elimination of some wastes
  • Manufacturing of important proteins
  • Detoxification of alcohol and certain medicines

Viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer. The CDC estimates that over 4.4 million Americans may have Hepatitis, although many do not know it since it often takes many years before symptoms arise. There are approximately 80,000 new Hepatitis infections ever year.

What Causes Hepatitis?

There are many potential causes for hepatitis. The most common causes however are:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Viral Hepatitis
  • Certain drugs


Since viral hepatitis can be caused by several different viruses, I will briefly explain the 5 different types of viral hepatitis:

Hepatitis A virus (HAV) is typically spread in areas of poor hygiene and may also be spread through contaminated water or food (including raw shellfish). Ever seen signs like the one above in restaurants? The reason for these signs (aside from the obvious "yuck" factor) is to prevent the spread of, amongst other things, Hepatitis A. This virus is the most common cause of Hepatitis

Hepatitis B (HBV) virus is the second greatest cause of all viral hepatitis cases. It is typically contracted by contact with infected blood, sharing of infected needles and sexual contact. Hepatitis B can be transmitted from mother to child during birth. Hepatitis B may resolve on its own, or it may turn in to chronic Hepatitis. Hepatitis B virus is a DNA virus, all other forms are RNA viruses. Only about 1% of Hepatitis B cases are fatal

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is primarily contracted through shared hypodermic needles, but also through the use of contaminated instruments during tatoos and body piercings. Sexual transmission is rare.

Hepatitis D virus (HDV) can only affect patients who also have Hepatitis B. Parenteral drug users are at greatest risk.

Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is typically spread by fecal contamination of a water supply. Like Hepatitis A, it is not a chronic condition, and does not cause cirrhosis of the liver.

Treatments for Hepatitis B & C

As a pharmacist I am writing this article especially to introduce patients to the medications available to treat hepatitis. Therefore I will now list the most common medications used to treat both chronic Hepatitis B & C.


Acute Hepatitis B may need no treatment and may resolve on its own (just like a cold or the flu). Chronic Hepatitis B may be treated with medications. Note: These drugs cannot cure Hepatitis B, but will help reduce the replication of the virus and thus improve the patient outcome and reduce the possibility of spreading the virus.

Prescription medication for Hepatitis B include:

  • Baraclude (entecavir, by Bristol Myers Squibb)
  • Epivir HBV (lamivudine, by GlaxoSmithKline)
  • Hepsera (adefovir dipivoxil, by Gilead Sciences)
  • Tyzeka (Telbivudine, by Novartis)

Prevention: Hepatits B can be prevented with a vaccine. Available forms of the Hepaitis B vaccine include Engerix-B and Recombivax-HB.


Unlike Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C can be cured (what is often referred to as a sustained viral response).

Current therapies for Hepatitis C often include combinations of 2 or more of the following prescription drugs:

1. Interferons: Interferons stimulate our own natural anti-viral response to the Hepatitis C virus. These are injectable drugs, often administered weekly for 6-12 months. Examples of available interferons include Pegasys and Peg-Intron.

2. Ribavirin: Often combined with interferon therapy, ribavirin is an anti-viral product used to treat Hepatitis C. Ribavirn products are taken orally, usually twice a day for the course of therapy (24-48 weeks). Examples of available ribavirin prescription products are Copegus, Rebetol, Ribapak, Ribasphere, Ribatab and generic ribavirin.

3. Incivek: Introduced in 2011 by Vertex pharmaceuticals, Incivek (telapevir) offers new hope for a complete cure for Hepatitis C patients. Incivek is taken with a course of interferon and ribavirin, usually 3 times daily. Side effects may include itching, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

4. Newer Treatments: Lately a variety of newer drug therapy options have entered the market and are very effective for the treatment of Hepatitis C. These include drugs such as Sovaldi, Olysio and Harvoni.

5. Vitrelis (boceprevir): As with Incivek, this product (from Merck) is intended for use with interferon and ribavirin therapy.

This article has been just a brief introduction to Hepatitis. The information provided should help you answer the question: "What is Hepatitis?" and be somewhat more knowledgeable about this disease and some of the treatment options available. The information provided in this article is not intended to replace any information you have received from your own health care practitioner.


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    • pharmacist profile image

      Jason Poquette 5 years ago from Whitinsville, MA


      Treatments can only be obtained through a physician in the U.S.

    • profile image

      Joseph Asumadu 5 years ago

      please where can i get the treatment for my son . can i order some? please show me how to go about it.

      thank you.

    • pharmacist profile image

      Jason Poquette 5 years ago from Whitinsville, MA

      Hi Susan,

      I believe sexual transmission of Hep C is rare. It is certainly a fair question for her to bring up with her doctor, especially if she is concerned. Best wishes!

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      My cousin had hepatitis c. He was never treated for it but lived from the age of 16 - 53. The doctors could never understand how he lived so long with this disease. He did die at 53 due to liver failure however. My question is should his wife be tested for Hep C?

    • pharmacist profile image

      Jason Poquette 6 years ago from Whitinsville, MA


      You should get tested first to see if you still have Hep B. After this, the vaccine may be appropriate.

    • profile image

      lavish 6 years ago

      i had hepatitis b,and i don't know if i am cured now,since this was 1year ago already.but i am feel ok,and i look so healty,i have my hepa b,can i still take the vaccination of hepatitis b?