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Chronic Hepatitis

by Anna E. Rutherford, MD, MPH

Chronic hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that lasts at least 6 months.

  • Common causes include hepatitis B and C viruses and certain drugs.

  • Many people have no symptoms, but some have vague symptoms, such as a general feeling of illness, poor appetite, and fatigue.

  • Chronic hepatitis can result in cirrhosis, with an enlarged spleen, accumulation of fluid within the abdomen, and deterioration of brain function.

  • A biopsy is done to confirm the diagnosis.

  • Drugs, such as antiviral drugs or corticosteroids, may be used, and for advanced disease, liver transplantation may be needed.

Chronic hepatitis, although much less common than acute hepatitis, can persist for years, even decades. In many people, it is quite mild and does not cause significant liver damage. However, in some people, continued inflammation slowly damages the liver, eventually resulting in cirrhosis (severe scarring of the liver—see Cirrhosis of the Liver), liver failure (see Liver Failure), and sometimes liver cancer ( Primary Liver Cancers).

Hepatitis C virus was not identified until 1989. People may have been infected before this time without knowing it. Because unrecognized infection is possible, researchers tested various age groups for hepatitis C. They found that among adults in the United States, about three fourths of all chronic hepatitis C cases occur in people born between 1945 and 1965.

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