Acute viral hepatitis is the most common of the serious infectious diseases of the liver. It is caused by several types of viruses that produce inflammation of the liver.

Infection with hepatitis A virus usually results in complete recovery and immunity to future type A infection. The symptoms of hepatitis B, a more serious infection, are usually more severe and persistent (although all types of viral hepatitis may be symptomless). Hepatitis C (formerly known as non-A, non-B hepatitis) is the most common cause of chronic hepatitis. Hepatitis E is similar to type A but is only found near the Indian Ocean, and hepatitis D only infects people already infected with type B.

Although there is no specific treatment for these disorders, most patients recover over time. Some people become carriers of hepatitis B, C, or D—that is, they remain infectious long after all symptoms have cleared. In some cases, both hepatitis B and hepatitis C may lead to chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.

What Causes Acute Viral Hepatitis?

  • Viruses cause acute hepatitis.
  • Hepatitis A and E are spread by contact with the fecal matter of an infected person, via contaminated fingers, food or water.
  • Raw shellfish from polluted waters may cause hepatitis A.
  • Hepatitis B, C, and D may be spread by exposure to contaminated blood (both fresh and dried) on infected needles, during a blood transfusion, or during sexual intercourse.
  • Hepatitis B or C may be transmitted to an infant at childbirth by an infected mother.
  • Overdose of drugs (like acetaminophen) and chemical exposure (including dry cleaning chemicals) can cause hepatitis.
  • Close personal contact in locker rooms, going to places with poor sanitation, alcoholism, poor nutrition, and use of intravenous drugs like heroin can also increase the risk of having hepatitis.

Symptoms of Acute Viral Hepatitis

  • General discomfort
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Aching muscles or joints
  • Abdominal discomfort or pain
  • Jaundice (yellowish tinge to the eyes and skin)
  • Dark urine and pale stools
  • Whole-body itching (called pruritus)
  • Enlarged, tender liver
  • Mild anemia
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache

Acute Viral Hepatitis Prevention

  • Hepatitis types A and B vaccines are advised prior to traveling to areas where hepatitis infection rates are high. Type B vaccine is also recommended for all children and adults in high-risk categories, such as health-care workers, people with multiple sexual partners, and renal dialysis patients.
  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap after a bowel movement or before handling food, especially if you have hepatitis A or E or if you are caring for someone with the infection. (Because hepatitis is contagious for weeks before symptoms develop, people may carry and spread the disease without realizing it.)
  • When traveling abroad or in areas with poor sanitation, drink only bottled water or other bottled beverages and eat only cooked foods and fruit you can peel yourself.
  • Use condoms during sexual intercourse to help prevent the spread of hepatitis B. Avoid intimate contact with infected persons if possible.
  • Sterile or disposable needles should be used in acupuncture, ear piercing, or tattooing. Ask about sterilization procedures in advance.
  • If you are in close contact to someone with hepatitis, consult your doctor about having gamma-globulin injections to decrease or prevent the risk.

Acute Viral Hepatitis Diagnosis

  • Patient history and physical examination are necessary.
  • Blood tests for the virus or antibodies to the virus are taken.
  • Liver function tests can also be performed.

How to Treat Acute Viral Hepatitis

  • Avoid alcoholic beverages during recovery.
  • Rest as needed.
  • Increase caloric intake. Several small meals daily rather than a few large ones may help combat nausea and loss of appetite.
  • In severe cases, temporary intravenous feeding may be necessary.

When to Call a Doctor

  • Call a doctor if you develop symptoms of acute viral hepatitis.
  • Call a doctor if you have been exposed to someone known to have acute viral hepatitis.


Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies: The Complete Home Medical Reference

Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor

Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 29 Aug 2011

Last Modified: 21 Oct 2014