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Hepatitis E

What is hepatitis E?

Hepatitis E is a potentially serious acute disease. It is caused by the hepatitis E virus (HEV). The virus targets the liver.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 20 million cases of hepatitis E infection occur every year, and 44,000 of these cases resulted in death in 2015. It is more common in developing countries. Hepatitis E usually resolves itself, but may develop into acute liver failure.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis E?

If a person develops symptoms of hepatitis E, they show up within several weeks of exposure. They include:

  • yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
  • dark urine
  • joint pain
  • a loss of appetite
  • pain in the abdomen
  • liver enlargement
  • acute liver failure
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fatigue
  • fever

What causes hepatitis E?

Most cases of hepatitis E are caused by drinking water contaminated by fecal matter. Living in or traveling to countries with poor sanitation can increase your risk. This is especially true in overcrowded areas.

More rarely, hepatitis E can be transmitted by eating products from infected animals. It can also be transmitted through blood transfusions. An infected pregnant woman can also transfer the virus to her fetus.

Most cases of infection clear up on their own after a few weeks. In other cases, the virus causes liver failure.

How is hepatitis E diagnosed?

To diagnose hepatitis E, your doctor will do a blood test to look for antibodies to the virus. Diagnosis can be challenging because distinguishing between different forms of hepatitis is difficult.

How is hepatitis E treated?

For people who have severe acute illness and who are not pregnant, treatment with the medication ribavirin for 21 days has resulted in improved liver function in some small studies.

If hepatitis E is suspected and your immune system is not suppressed, you may not need medications. A doctor may advise you to rest, drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol, and practice good hygiene until the infection subsides.

Pregnant women, people with suppressed immune systems, or people with acute liver failure will likely be hospitalized and monitored.

What is the outlook for hepatitis E?

Hepatitis E generally clears up on its own with few complications. In rare cases, it can lead to acute liver failure, which can be fatal.

Mortality rates for the virus are low. Pregnant women are most at risk for fatal complications. People with suppressed immune systems are more at risk for developing a chronic version of hepatitis E.

How to prevent hepatitis E

To avoid contracting hepatitis E, be cautious about drinking unsanitary water.

In developing countries, drink only purified or boiled water. Avoid uncooked or unpeeled foods. These include fruit, vegetables, and shellfish, which are usually rinsed in water.

It is also important to practice good hygiene and wash your hands often.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Amber Erickson Gabbey
Medically reviewed on: Nov 14, 2017: Daniel Murrell, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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