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When we hear that someone has hepatitis, we typically think they have a disease, like having heart disease or a lung infection. In actuality, hepatitis is swelling and inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is not a condition -- it is the way the liver responds to something that is going wrong.
The liver, which is the largest organ inside the body, is located in the abdomen overlapping the stomach. The liver carries out many important functions including changing food into energy and cleaning poisons and alcohol from the blood. The liver also produces bile which is a liquid used by the stomach to help with digestion of food.
Hepatitis or swelling of the liver causes the liver not to function the way it should. Hepatitis can also lead to scar tissue on the liver, which is known as cirrhosis. Because scar tissue cannot carry out the same functions as healthy liver tissue, cirrhosis can cause serious problems in other organs in the body because the liver is not doing its job effectively. Approximately 5 percent of people who have cirrhosis of the liver develop liver cancer.
Hepatitis can be caused by a variety of things including viruses such as the hepatitis A, B, or C virus. But having hepatitis does not necessarily mean you have one of these viruses. Hepatitis can also be caused by one of the following:
• Bacteria or parasites: These infections can cause swelling of the liver.
• Toxins: Anything that is poisonous to the liver can cause damage leading to inflammation.
• Autoimmune: Some disorders of the immune system can cause the body to attack its own organs including the liver.
• Blood supply: An injury or illness that restricts the blood supply to the liver can cause damage leading to inflammation and swelling.
• Injury: An accident or trauma to the abdomen can damage the liver and cause inflammation.
Some people with hepatitis have no symptoms and may have chronic inflammation of the liver without knowing it. Other people with hepatitis have one or more of the following symptoms:
• Pain in the abdomen or stomach
• Poor appetite
• Upset stomach, nausea, or vomiting
• Low fever
• Weight loss