Everything you need to know about hepatitis - and how to avoid it

A person being tested for hepatitis.
A person being tested for hepatitis.

World Hepatitis Day falls on July 28, with more and more countries and organisations taking part every year.

But, what is hepatitis? Well, it's an inflammation of the liver, usually due to a viral infection or damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

There are several different types of hepatitis, but the symptoms are largely the same: nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle and joint pain, abdominal pain, dark urine and pale faeces, itchy and or jaundiced skin.

Both short-term and long-term hepatitis may not show any obvious symptoms until liver failure occurs and may only be picked up during blood tests. Here are some common types of hepatitis:

Alcoholic hepatitis: The easiest to avoid, though it is common in the UK. Many people do not realise they are suffering from it, as it often does not present in symptoms. You can reduce your risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis by controlling how much you drink. It is recommended that you don’t regularly exceed 14 units of alcohol per week.

Hepatitis A: A viral infection which is usually caused by consuming food and drink contaminated with infected sewage and is therefore most common in poorer countries where sanitation is poor. Vaccination against Hep A is recommended if you are travelling to an area where the virus is common such as Africa, India and Central America.

Hepatitis B: Carried in infected blood, it is uncommon in the UK but can be spread through unprotected sex and injecting drugs. Most adults infected with Hep B are able to fight off the virus and recover within a couple of months. As of 2017, vaccination against Hep B is on the routine immunisation programme.

Hepatitis C: Similar to Hep B in the way it is spread. It can be treated effectively with antiviral medication, but no vaccine is currently available.

Hepatitis D: Hep D can only be contracted by those already infected with Hep B, and as such the Hep B vaccination can protect you from it. It is uncommon in the UK.

Hepatitis E: Hep E is now the most common cause of short-term (acute) hepatitis in the UK. Mainly associated with the consumption of raw or under-cooked pork, venison and shellfish, it is a mild and short-term infection which requires no treatment and poses a low risk to those with a healthy immune system. There is no vaccine, but the risk of infection can be reduced by practicing good food and water hygiene measures in regions with poor sanitation.

Keeping your liver healthy is as simple as it is important – it is more about avoiding what’s bad than actively requiring special nutrients. Consult your GP about which medicines are safe to take if you are having liver problems, but overall, limiting your alcohol intake, cutting out smoking, and a healthy diet with exercise are the easiest ways to ensure a healthy liver.

:: Dr. Alexandra Phelan is a GP with the NHS and Pharmacy2U, an online service which provides free, fast and convenient delivery of NHS repeat prescriptions.