Viral Hepatitis (cont.)

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What is the treatment for viral hepatitis?

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Treatment of acute viral hepatitis and chronic viral hepatitis are different. Treatment of acute viral hepatitis involves relieving symptoms and maintaining adequate intake of fluids. Treatment of chronic viral hepatitis involves medications to eradicate the virus and taking measures to prevent further liver damage.

Acute hepatitis

In patients with acute viral hepatitis, the initial treatment consists of relieving the symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Careful attention should be given to medications which can have adverse effects in patients with abnormal liver function. Only those medications that are considered necessary should be administered since the impaired liver is not able to eliminate drugs normally, and drugs may accumulate in the blood and reach toxic levels. Moreover, sedatives and "tranquilizers" are avoided because they may accentuate the effects of liver failure on the brain and cause lethargy and coma. The patient must abstain from drinking alcohol, since alcohol is toxic to the liver. It occasionally is necessary to provide intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration caused by vomiting. Patients with severe nausea and/or vomiting may need to be hospitalized for treatment and intravenous fluids.

Acute HBV is not treated with antiviral drugs. Acute HCV - though rarely diagnosed - can be treated with several of the drugs used for treating chronic HCV. Treatment of HCV is recommended primarily for the 80% of patients who do not eradicate the virus early. Treatment results in clearing of the virus in the majority of patients.

Chronic hepatitis

Treatment of chronic infection with hepatitis B and hepatitis C usually involves medication or combinations of medications to eradicate the virus. Doctors believe that in properly selected patients, successful eradication of the viruses can stop progressive damage to the liver and prevent the development of cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. Alcohol aggravates liver damage in chronic hepatitis, and can cause more rapid progression to cirrhosis. Therefore, patients with chronic hepatitis should stop drinking alcohol. Smoking cigarettes also can aggravate liver disease and should be stopped.

Medications for chronic hepatitis C infection include:

Medications for chronic hepatitis B infection include:

  • injectable alpha interferon
  • oral lamivudine (Epivir)
  • oral adefovir (Hepsera)
  • oral entecavir (Baraclude)

Decisions regarding treatment of chronic hepatitis can be complex, and should be directed by gastroenterologists or hepatologists (doctors specially trained in treating diseases of the liver) for several reasons including:

  1. The diagnosis of chronic viral hepatitis may not be straightforward. Sometimes a liver biopsy may have to be performed for confirmation of liver damage. Doctors experienced in managing chronic liver diseases must weigh the risk of liver biopsy against the potential benefits of the biopsy.
  2. Not all patients with chronic viral hepatitis are candidates for treatment. Some patients need no treatment (since some patients with chronic hepatitis B and C do not develop progressive liver damage or liver cancer).
  3. Medications for chronic infection with hepatitis B and hepatitis C are not always effective. Prolonged treatment (6 months to years) often is necessary. Even with prolonged treatment, rates of successful treatment (defined as complete and lasting eradication of the virus) often are low (usually less than 80% and often around 50%).
  4. Some of the medications such as interferon and ribavirin can have serious side effects, and doses may have to be reduced.
  5. There are several different strains of hepatitis C viruses with differing susceptibilities to medications. For example, hepatitis C type 3 is more likely to respond to interferon injections and ribavirin than type 1. Certain hepatitis B strains are resistant to lamivudine but respond to adefovir or entecavir.

Fulminant hepatitis. Treatment of acute fulminant hepatitis should be done in centers that can perform liver transplantation since acute fulminant hepatitis has a high mortality (about 80%) without liver transplantation.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/20/2012

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