Patient Care Transplant Surgery

A Look Into Hepatitis and Liver Transplant

What Is Hepatitis?

To put it most simply, hepatitis is the technical term for inflammation of the liver. This inflammation can be caused by viruses, chemicals, drugs, alcohol and certain genetic and autoimmune disorders. In severe cases, hepatitis can lead to liver failure. Washington University transplant surgeons are among the region’s leaders in liver transplantation for people with hepatitis.

There are five types of hepatitis viruses – defined by letters A-E of the alphabet – which can cause viral hepatitis in humans. Hepatitis A, B and C, are most common in the United States.

Hepatitis A and E are most commonly spread when a person ingests food or water contaminated by either virus. Hepatitis B, C and D are spread when a person comes into contact with infected body fluids. This most often includes blood (spread by sharing needles or contaminated medical equipment), sexual contact and – in the case of hepatitis B – transmission from mother to baby at birth.

Protecting Yourself From Viral Hepatitis – What to Know

There are effective vaccines against the hepatitis A and B viruses which are very common. In fact, most children receive these vaccines very early in life, although anyone can receive them at any age.  Hepatitis A and B are also less severe. Most people with hepatitis A are only sick for a few weeks to months (if they experience symptoms at all) and recover without lasting damage to their liver. Hepatitis B has a higher risk of causing more complications, but only 15-25 percent of people who are infected with this virus and develop chronic symptoms experience these complications.

The best ways to protect yourself from contracting viral hepatitis are to educate yourself and take wise precautions. You can reduce your chances of being infected in a number of ways:

  • Get the hepatitis A and B vaccines
  • Use a condom or barrier during sex
  • Practice good personal hygiene (such as thorough hand washing with water and soap)
  • Do not share needles
  • Avoid contact with blood or materials contaminated with blood
  • Take precautions when getting tattoos or body piercings – needles should always be sterile
  • Take extra precautions when traveling in places where sanitation is poor or hepatitis is more common
    • Use bottled water or boil tap water for drinking and brushing your teeth
    • Wash fruits and vegetables before eating
    • Avoid drinks with ice cubes
    • Avoid “street food” or meals prepared outside a sanitary kitchen

While there are only vaccines available for hepatitis A and B, practicing these precautions can reduce your chances of infection from any type of viral hepatitis.

What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis?

Recognizing hepatitis can be tricky, as many people who contract hepatitis are asymptomatic, meaning they experience no noticeable symptoms. They may also not be aware of when or how they were infected.

If symptoms do occur, they often appear two weeks to six months after exposure to a hepatitis virus. These symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Light-colored stools
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
  • Abdominal swelling

Any type of hepatitis can cause serious damage to your liver, and some do this more quickly than others. In some cases, hepatitis can cause complications which lead to liver failure.

Cases of hepatitis can also be acute or chronic. Acute hepatitis lasts six months or less. Chronic hepatitis lasts six months or longer – sometimes even the rest of a person’s life – and can cause more serious complications.

Liver Transplant – When Is It Necessary?

Most people who contract hepatitis will not require a liver transplant. In fact, most will experience mild or short-term symptoms or no symptoms at all. Treatment options are available to help alleviate symptoms while they occur. But for those at higher risk or with more serious chronic cases, there is still help to be found.

Any kind of hepatitis can cause long term damage to the liver in severe cases. Hepatitis C is one of the most common reasons for liver failure – and subsequent liver transplantation – in the United States. This type of hepatitis can lead to not only inflammation of the liver, but infection, scarring (called fibrosis), damage, and harmful regrowth of liver cells (called cirrhosis) and liver cancer.

You cannot live without your liver – it performs several different vital functions in the body we need to live. Liver failure occurs when the liver is damaged beyond the body’s ability to repair itself and can no longer function. Liver transplants are often life-saving procedures performed when people experience liver failure due to disease or injury. Transplant can help restore a patient’s liver function and health even after a life-threatening injury or disease.

What Happens During a Liver Transplant?

Any transplant is a major surgery. During a liver transplant, the surgeon removes your liver, places a donor liver in its place and sets to work connecting the vital pathways of the liver, such as blood vessels and bile ducts, to the body. This allows the body to accept the healthy donor organ and resume function.

Donor livers may be complete organs or partial organs from live donors. Out of all of our organs, our livers can most easily regenerate (regrow missing parts). In the case of a partial organ donation, both the donated portion of the liver and the remaining portion within the donor will regenerate into whole livers.    

Read more: Ask the Doctors: Adult Liver Transplant

The Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center

Hepatitis and liver transplantation can be complicated. There are several different types of hepatitis which can cause problems in the liver and other health complications, but there are many ways to reduce your chances of contracting the virus. When infection does occur, there are multiple ways symptoms may (or may not) appear, and some are more serious than others. When treatment, including liver transplant, is necessary, finding the right program for you is an important decision.

The liver transplant team at the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center have performed over 1,700 successful adult liver transplants—including the first in the state of Missouri. Our nationally recognized gastroenterology program ranks among the top in the country due to our dedication to clinical excellence, research and innovation. In addition to transplant services, our specialists provide treatment for hepatitis and other conditions that can lead to liver failure to slow or stop the progression of the disease and reduce the need for a transplant early on. We offer the most cutting edge treatments and are constantly working to provide effective, individualized care to each of our patients.

Our goal at the Transplant Center is to restore out patients’ health and quality of life. Our comprehensive team of experts work directly with each patient to find solutions which meet your health goals and to ensure only the best care for each individual.

To make an appointment with one of our doctors, please call:

Washington University Section of Transplant Surgery (314) 362-2880