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Symptoms of Acute Viral Hepatitis

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Updated July 08, 2014

Symptoms of Acute Viral Hepatitis

Fatigue is a common initial symptom of viral hepatitis.

Photo: C. Leconte/stock.xchng
Hepatitis is a disease of the liver and to really understand the signs and symptoms of hepatitis requires a basic knowledge of what the liver does. For now, you must understand that the liver is crucial to the body because it is involved in many functions essential to life. For example, did you know that 25% of your blood volume goes through your liver every minute? So every five minutes, your liver filters your entire blood supply. Because the liver intersects so many different body systems, signs and symptoms of liver disease often resemble many different diseases. Certainly, when the liver is having problems, the body lets you know in many different ways.

Four Important Principles

Before we go through the symptoms of viral hepatitis, it's important to understand four general principles. These principles will help you make sense of the list of symptoms, which is really nothing but a guide. Symptoms are just a starting point. To make a diagnosis of acute viral hepatitis requires more than symptoms. In fact, doctors will use a variety of methods to make a diagnosis.
  • First, acute viral hepatitis usually have similar symptoms, regardless of the specific viral infection. This means that, in the acute stage, someone with hepatitis A could have the same symptoms as someone with hepatitis C. It is important to know that doctors can't diagnose the type of viral hepatitis infection through the symptoms. To find out if your viral hepatitis is caused by one of the hepatitis viruses, you need a blood test.
  • Second, the symptoms are general. Since the liver has a part in so many essential functions, many symptoms are constitutional, meaning they affect the entire body. For example, a sore leg will usually just hurt in and around the leg. With hepatitis, you may feel pain around the liver, but you will also probably have chills and aches in your joints and muscles.
  • Third, the symptoms are variable. Though doctors can list common symptoms of hepatitis, not everyone will have these symptoms. Some people may have only one or two common symptoms. Others may have all of the symptoms. People experience viral hepatitis in different ways. These symptoms are known to exist in people with viral hepatitis. Your situation might be different.
  • Fourth, many times acute viral hepatitis will have no symptoms at all. Isn't this bizarre? But it's true! Depending on how your body responds to the initial infection, you might have no symptoms. In fact, some people only find out they had (or have) hepatitis after donating their blood or maybe during routine blood work during an annual physical examination. The word doctors use to describe a person with no symptoms is "asymptomatic." You still had the infection, but your body didn't need to tell you about it.

Symptoms of Acute Viral Hepatitis

Though symptoms of hepatitis can be organized in several ways, a good approach is by dividing the symptoms into three stages which progress with the disease -- beginning, middle and recovery. Each of these stages match up with a specific clinical term that doctors use to describe viral hepatitis.

Beginning Symptoms (Prodromal Stage)

The initial symptoms of hepatitis, or prodromal symptoms, can happen suddenly or they can happen slowly and subtlely. These symptoms are usually so general that most people wouldn't expect viral hepatitis. However, a good physician will want to rule out viral hepatitis especially if you have risk factors that increase your exposure to viral hepatitis. Symptoms begin after the incubation period, which is specific to the particular virus causing the infection. Once you are exposed to the virus, the virus needs time to replicate. Once enough copies of the virus have infected the hepatocytes of the liver, your body's immune system responds with powerful anti-viral cells that seek and destroy the hepatitis viruses. It's very interesting that part of the symptoms you experience from acute viral hepatitis is actually caused by your body's immune system defense. Remember, you may have some of these prodromal symptoms, all of these, or none of these. Everyone could experience viral hepatitis a little bit differently. Eventually, though, you'll progress to the second stage of symptoms: the Middle.

To read about symptoms of viral hepatitis during the middle and recovery stages, please continue to page two.

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