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What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver and can result in liver cell damage and destruction.

What causes hepatitis?

Hepatitis in children has many different origins or causes. A child may contract hepatitis from exposure to a viral source. The following is a list of some of the viruses associated with hepatitis:

  • hepatitis viruses - six main types of the hepatitis virus have been identified, including hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, and G.
  • cytomegalovirus (CMV) - a virus that is a part of the herpes virus family that can be transmitted from person to person.
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) - the virus most commonly associated with infectious mononucleosis.
  • herpes simplex virus (HSV) - herpes can involve the face and skin above the waist, or the genitalia.
  • varicella zoster virus (VZV) - also known as chickenpox, a complication of VZV is hepatitis.
  • enteroviruses - a group of viruses commonly seen in children such as coxsackie viruses, hand-foot-mouth disease, and echoviruses.
  • rubella - caused by the Rubivirus, rubella is a mild disease that causes a rash.
  • adenovirus - a group of viruses that commonly cause colds, tonsillitis, and ear infections in children. They can also cause diarrhea.
  • parvovirus - a virus referred to as fifth disease, which is characterized by a facial rash that is described as having a "slapped-cheek" appearance.

The following is a list of some of the diseases that may cause chronic hepatitis in children:

  • autoimmune liver disease - the body's immune system develops antibodies that attack the liver causing an inflammatory process that leads to hepatitis.
  • chronic viral hepatitis - usually caused by hepatitis B, C, or D.

Types of hepatitis viruses:

There are six main types of the hepatitis virus that have been identified, including hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, and G.

Hepatitis A - This type of hepatitis is usually spread by fecal-oral contact, or fecal-infected food and water, and may also be spread by blood-borne infection (which is rare). The following is a list of modes of transmission for hepatitis A:

  • consuming food made by someone who touched infected feces
  • drinking water that is contaminated by infected feces - a problem in developing countries with poor sewage removal
  • touching infected person's feces, which may occur with poor hand washing
  • outbreaks may occur in child care centers especially when there are children in diapers
  • residents of American Indian reservations or Native Alaskan villages where hepatitis A may be more common
  • international travel to areas where hepatitis A is common
  • sexual contact with an infected person
  • use of intravenous (IV) drugs
  • blood transfusions (very rare)
  • vertical transmission (very rare)

The CDC now recommends the vaccine for hepatitis A to children at age 1. Please consult your physician if you have questions about its use. The vaccine is especially recommended for the following children:

  • children who live in other areas where there has been a community outbreak
  • children who have a blood clotting disorder, such as hemophilia
  • children who attend child care centers that have had outbreaks of hepatitis A
  • children with chronic liver disease

The vaccine is not recommended for children under 2 years of age.

Hepatitis B - Hepatitis B has a wide range of clinical presentations. It can be mild, without symptoms, or it may cause chronic hepatitis. In some cases, when infants and young children acquire hepatitis B, they are at high risk for chronic liver disease and liver failure. Transmission of hepatitis B virus occurs when blood from an infected person enters another person's body. Infants may also develop the disease if they are born to a mother who has the virus. Infected children often spread the virus to other children if there is frequent contact (i.e., household contact) or a child has many scrapes or cuts. The following describes persons who are at risk for developing hepatitis B:

  • children born to mothers who have hepatitis B
  • children who are born to mothers who have immigrated from a country where hepatitis B is widespread such as southeast Asia and China
  • children who live in long-term care facilities or who are disabled
  • children who live in households where another member is infected with the virus
  • children who have a blood clotting disorder such as hemophilia and require blood products
  • children who require dialysis for kidney failure
  • adolescents who may participate in high-risk activities such as IV drug use and/or unprotected heterosexual or homosexual contact

A vaccine for Hepatitis B does exist and is now widely used for routine childhood immunization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommend that universal infant hepatitis B vaccination should begin at birth except in rare circumstances. 

The vaccine is given in three doses and is generally required for all children born on or after January 1, 1992, before they enter school. The vaccine is available for older children who may have not been immunized before 1992 and is recommended before age 11 or 12.

Hepatitis C - The symptoms of hepatitis C are usually mild and gradual. Children often show no symptoms at all. Transmission of hepatitis C occurs primarily from contact with infected blood, but can also occur from sexual contact or from an infected mother to her baby. Although hepatitis C has milder symptoms initially, it leads to chronic liver disease in a majority of people who are infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hepatitis C is the leading indication for liver transplantation in adults. With some cases of hepatitis C, no mode of transmission can be identified. The following describes persons who may be at risk for contracting hepatitis C:

  • children born to mothers who are infected with the virus
  • persons who have a blood clotting disorder such as hemophilia and received clotting factors before 1987
  • children who require dialysis for kidney failure
  • individuals who received a blood transfusion before 1992
  • adolescents who participate in high-risk activities such as IV drug use and/or unprotected heterosexual or homosexual contact.

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Persons who are at risk should be checked regularly for hepatitis C. Persons who have hepatitis C should be monitored closely for signs of chronic hepatitis and liver failure.

Hepatitis D - This form of hepatitis can only occur in the presence of hepatitis B. If an individual has hepatitis B and does not show symptoms or shows very mild symptoms, infection with D can put that person at risk for liver failure that progresses rapidly. Hepatitis D can occur at the same time as the initial infection with B, or it may show up much later. Transmission of hepatitis D occurs the same way as hepatitis B, except the transmission from mother to baby is less common. Hepatitis D is rare in children born in the US due to the common use of hepatitis B vaccine in infancy.

Hepatitis E - This form of hepatitis is similar to hepatitis A. Transmission occurs through fecal-oral contamination. It is less common in children than hepatitis A. Hepatitis E is most common in poorly developed countries and rarely seen in the United States. There is no vaccine for hepatitis E at this time.

Hepatitis G - This is the newest strain of hepatitis and very little is known about it. Transmission is believed to occur through blood and is most commonly seen in IV drug users, individuals with clotting disorders such as hemophilia, and individuals who require hemodialysis for renal failure. Often hepatitis G shows no clinical symptoms and has not been found to be a cause of acute or chronic hepatitis.

How often does hepatitis occur?

According to the CDC, in the US, in 2006:

  • one-third of Americans were exposed to hepatitis A.
  • there were 46,000 hepatitis B infections.
  • there were 19,000 hepatitis C infections.

Why is hepatitis a concern?

Hepatitis is a concern because it often originates from a virus and is communicable (can be spread from your child to others). In some cases, liver failure or death can occur. However, not everyone who is infected will experience symptoms.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis?

The following are the most common symptoms for hepatitis. However, each child may experience symptoms differently and some children may experience no symptoms at all.

Symptoms of acute (abrupt onset) hepatitis may include the following:

  • flu-like symptoms
  • fever
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • decreased appetite
  • not feeling well all over
  • abdominal pain or discomfort
  • diarrhea
  • joint pain
  • sore muscles
  • itchy red hives on skin

Later symptoms include dark-colored urine and jaundice (yellowing of the skin, and eyes). The symptoms of hepatitis may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is hepatitis diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and examination by your physician, diagnostic procedures and other tests to determine the extent of the disease may include the following:

  • blood testing for the following:
    • liver function studies
    • antibody studies (to check for hepatitis)
    • cellular blood counts
    • bleeding times
    • electrolytes
    • other chemicals in the body
  • ultrasound - a diagnostic imaging technique which uses high-frequency sound waves and a computer to create images of blood vessels, tissues, and organs. Ultrasounds are used to view internal organs of the abdomen such as the liver, spleen, and kidneys and to assess blood flow through various vessels.
  • liver biopsy - a small sample of liver tissue is obtained with a special biopsy needle and examined for abnormalities.

Treatment for hepatitis:

Specific treatment for hepatitis will be determined by your child's physician based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment for hepatitis varies depending on the underlying cause of the disease. The goal of treatment is to stop damage to the liver and alleviate symptoms. Treatment may include one, or more, of the following:

  • supportive care (healthy diet and rest)
  • medications (to help control itching)
  • maintaining adequate growth and development
  • avoiding alcohol and drugs
  • preventing the spread of the disease (if the cause is viral hepatitis)
  • interferon drug therapy - a medication referred to as a "biologic response modifier" that can affect the immune system and has virus-fighting activities.
  • frequent blood testing (to determine disease progression)
  • hospitalization (may be required in more severe cases)
  • liver transplantation (may be recommended for end-stage liver failure)

Preventing the spread of viral hepatitis:

Proper hygiene is the key to preventing the spread of many diseases, including hepatitis. Other preventative measures include:

  • vaccinations
    Vaccinations are available for hepatitis A and B.
  • blood transfusion
    Blood transfusions are routinely screened for hepatitis B and C to reduce the risk of infection.
  • antibody preparation
    If a person has been exposed to hepatitis A or B, an antibody preparation (immunoglobulin) can be administered to help protect them from contracting the disease.

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Online Resources of Infectious Diseases

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