National Hepatitis Awareness Month

Last Editorial Review: 7/7/2004

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. The liver is the largest gland in the body, located in the right, upper belly. The liver is a vital organ that produces many of the proteins of the body that are necessary for life.

Many illnesses and conditions can cause liver inflammation, such as virus and bacteria infections, drugs, alcohol, chemicals, and autoimmune diseases. When medical professionals speak of hepatitis, they are usually referring to liver inflammation caused by viruses. These specific hepatitis viruses have been labeled A, B, C, D, E, F, (not confirmed) and G. (As our knowledge of new viruses grows, it is likely this alphabetical list will become more lengthy.) While some viruses, such as mononucleosis and cytomegalovirus, can also cause liver inflammation, they do not primarily attack the liver.

What are the functions of the liver?

  • The liver helps purify the blood by changing harmful chemicals into harmless substances. The source of these chemicals can be external, such as medications or alcohol, or internal, such as ammonia or bilirubin. Typically, these harmful substances are broken down into smaller substances that are excreted from the body into the urine or stool.

  • The liver produces many important compounds, especially proteins, that are necessary for health. It produces albumin, the building block protein of the body, as well as the proteins that help blood to clot properly. The liver stores many of the sugars, fats and vitamins until they are needed elsewhere in the body.

The liver transforms smaller building block type substances into larger more complicated compounds needed elsewhere in the body. One of these types of functions is the building up and breaking down of cholesterol. When the liver is inflamed, it does not perform these functions for the body as efficiently, which brings about many of the symptoms associated with hepatitis.

For important information about hepatitis, please visit the following areas:

Medical Editor: Leslie J. Schoenfield, M.D., Ph.D.

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