Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Chronic Hepatitis


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Sep 2019
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What is chronic hepatitis?

Hepatitis is inflammation (swelling) of the liver. A chronic illness is one that lasts a long time or may not go away at all. Chronic hepatitis lasts for 6 months or longer. Chronic hepatitis usually develops from acute hepatitis but you may not know you had acute hepatitis. An acute illness is one that comes on quickly and goes away quickly.

  • Usually, chronic hepatitis is caused by the hepatitis B or C virus or certain drugs

  • Most people have no symptoms, but some people may feel a little sick, tired, or not hungry

  • Sometimes, chronic hepatitis can cause serious problems over time, such as cirrhosis

  • Chronic hepatitis can last for years

  • Doctors can treat chronic hepatitis with medicine, but you may need a liver transplant eventually

What causes chronic hepatitis?

Chronic hepatitis is usually caused by one of the hepatitis viruses, especially hepatitis B and C.

Chronic hepatitis can also be caused by:

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes chronic hepatitis in some people.

What are the symptoms of chronic hepatitis?

About 2 out of 3 people with chronic hepatitis develop it gradually and have no symptoms until they develop cirrhosis (scarring of the liver).

You could have symptoms such as:

  • Feeling a little sick, tired, and less hungry

  • Sometimes, a mild fever and pain in your upper belly area

  • Swelling from fluid building up in your belly area (ascites)

  • Small, spiderlike blood vessels on your skin (spider angioma)

  • Red palms

  • Trouble thinking clearly

  • Bleeding easily

  • Itchiness

  • Bad-smelling, greasy looking, light-colored stool (poop)

  • Autoimmune symptoms like joint pain and, for women, no periods

If you have chronic hepatitis B or chronic hepatitis C with cirrhosis, you may develop liver cancer.

How can doctors tell if I have chronic hepatitis?

Doctors will:

  • Do blood tests

  • Take a small sample of your liver to look at under a microscope (biopsy)

How do doctors treat chronic hepatitis?

Your doctor will treat your chronic hepatitis differently depending on the cause:

  • If a certain medicine is the cause, your doctor will have you stop taking the medicine

  • If hepatitis B, C, or E is the cause, your doctor will give you medicine to treat the virus

  • If you’re having an autoimmune reaction, your doctor will give you corticosteroids to decrease the inflammation in the liver

  • If you have severe liver failure, you may need a liver transplant

Doctors will also treat any complications your chronic hepatitis has caused.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
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