Acute hepatitis is liver inflammation that lasts less than six months and often is of sudden onset. This type of hepatitis is most often caused by infection with the hepatitis A virus, but it also can occur as a result of infection with the hepatitis viruses B, C, D or E. Other viruses that infect the liver, such as yellow fever virus and Epstein-Barr virus, normally do not cause acute hepatitis. Non-viral causes of this type of hepatitis include bacterial or amebic infection, drug overdose, abnormal drug reaction and alcohol poisoning.
Hepatitis and other causes of liver inflammation can damage the liver in two different ways. The first is direct damage caused by infection of liver cells, or by toxic effects of medications or drugs. The second mechanism of liver damage occurs when hepatitis is the result of an infection and is mediated by the immune system’s inflammatory response to the infection. In the immune response to infection, inflammation plays a key role by recruiting infection-fighting immune cells to the site of infection, but this same inflammation sometimes also is responsible for temporary or permanent liver damage.
Common symptoms of the early stages of acute hepatitis include malaise, muscle and joint aches, skin rash, fever, nausea, reduced appetite, diarrhea and headaches. It also is common to experience pain just beneath the ribs on the right side of the body. As the disease progresses, many of these initial symptoms subside somewhat and typically are replaced by the appearance of jaundice, or yellowed skin, and dark-colored urine. After the jaundice subsides, the patient is said to be in recovery, and during this time, he or she will retain a feeling of intense fatigue and tiredness that might linger for several weeks.
Treatment for acute hepatitis generally is supportive in nature, because there is no specific treatment that can cure this liver disease. In the case of acute viral hepatitis, for example, treatment might include anti-viral medication and perhaps anti-emetic medication to control nausea and vomiting. If a patient becomes severely dehydrated, he or she might be hospitalized for rehydration with intravenous fluids.
In a small percentage of people, acute hepatitis can progress to liver failure. This can occur if the liver becomes permanently damaged as a result of inflammation. In the case of liver failure, there can arise complications such as hepatic encephalopathy, in which the brain is affected by a build-up of toxins in the bloodstream. Liver failure can become life-threatening, and someone with liver failure might eventually require an organ transplant.