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Viral Hepatitis

What is viral hepatitis?

Viral hepatitis is an infection of the liver by a virus.

What is the cause?

Different types of hepatitis are caused by different viruses. The hepatitis A virus (HAV) is the most common cause of hepatitis in children, but since routine vaccination was begun across the US in 2006, it has become a much less common disease.

Someone who is infected may pass hepatitis A to others by not washing his or her hands, especially after using the bathroom. The virus can also be spread from:

  • Contact with the bowel movements of an infected person
  • Food handled by an infected person
  • Water that has sewage in it or shellfish taken from the contaminated water

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is the second most common type of hepatitis in children. It can spread from contact with the blood or other body fluids of someone who is infected with the virus. For example, you can get it from:

  • Needles used for piercing, tattoos, or drug injection
  • Sexual contact
  • Exposure to the blood of someone who is infected

A pregnant woman can pass hepatitis B to her baby if she is infected when the child is born.

Hepatitis C is spread mainly through contact with the blood of someone who is infected. This can happen from needle sticks with infected needles. Sometimes it is spread through sexual contact. In rare cases hepatitis C is passed from a pregnant woman to her baby. It appears to have little risk for spread through breast-feeding.

There are also some other, rarer types of hepatitis.

Hepatitis is not spread by hugging or kissing, sneezing, coughing, or casual contact.

Sometimes there are outbreaks of hepatitis A at day care centers or restaurants.

What are the symptoms?

Children under 6 years old often have no symptoms. Teens and adults usually have symptoms.

Symptoms of hepatitis include:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Gray-colored bowel movements
  • Joint pain
  • Yellow color of the skin or eyes (jaundice)

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s medical history and symptoms. Your provider will look at your child’s skin and eyes for signs of hepatitis. Your provider will check the belly to see if the liver is bigger than it should be or hurts when it is touched.

Your child will have blood tests. If blood tests show that the liver is not working normally, your child have tests to find out if a virus is causing the problems. The tests will also determine the type of virus causing the infection.

What is the treatment?

The usual treatment is rest. Your child should rest while he or she has fever or jaundice. When fever and jaundice are gone, your child may gradually increase activity.

Once your child recovers from hepatitis A, the virus leaves the body. But sometimes hepatitis B or C viruses stay in the body and cause a chronic (ongoing) infection. This means the virus keeps affecting the liver for several months or years. Damage to the liver by the infection can scar the liver and lead to other health problems, such as scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver or even liver cancer. Some medicines are used to treat chronic hepatitis. These medicines can help, but do not cure the disease. Your child’s healthcare provider will test your child’s blood at follow-up appointments for signs of chronic liver disease.

How can I help take care of my child?

  • Follow your provider's advice for how much rest your child needs and when your child can go back to his or her normal activities, including day care or school.
  • Follow your child’s healthcare provider's instructions for taking medicine for symptoms. You need to avoid giving your child medicines that can damage the liver more (for example, acetaminophen). Ask your provider which medicines your child can safely take for symptoms, such as pain and nausea. Also do not give any herbs, vitamins or other supplements without checking with your provider first.
  • Give your child small, high-protein, high-calorie meals, even when he or she feels nauseated. Sipping soft drinks or juices and sucking on hard candy may help your child feel less nauseated. Your child should not drink any alcohol.
  • Follow your child’s healthcare provider's instructions. Ask your provider:
    • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
    • How long it will take for your child to recover
    • What activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
    • How to take care of your child at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them
  • Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent hepatitis?

Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B can be prevented by vaccines that all babies should receive. If a child did not receive the hepatitis vaccines as a baby, he or she may get the shots later in childhood or as a teenager.

The best way to prevent exposure to hepatitis is good handwashing. Children should wash their hands every time they go to the bathroom. Good handwashing should be enforced at home and at day care.

With hepatitis A, it is also important to keep a clean environment, such as clean toilets, bathrooms, and clothing.

After you know which type of hepatitis your child has, people living in the same house as the child should be treated to prevent spread of the disease. Your healthcare provider will help plan treatment for your family. This treatment is used only to help prevent the disease. It does not treat the actual infection.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-06-29
Last reviewed: 2012-06-11
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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