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Diagnosing Viral Hepatitis

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What is viral hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an inflammatory condition of the liver. Viral hepatitis occurs when hepatitis is caused by a virus. It can be spread through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person or through consumption of contaminated food or water. The most common types of viral hepatitis include hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E.

Diagnostic process

The diagnostic process for viral hepatitis includes a medical history, physical exam, blood tests, and imaging tests. If needed, a liver biopsy may also be ordered.

Medical history

The diagnostic process typically begins with a thorough medical history. Questions are asked about symptoms such as fatigue, dark urine, loss of appetite, or unexplained weight loss. Inquiries about activities that increase the risk of contracting viral hepatitis (e.g., traveling to a country with poor sanitation, sharing needles for intravenous drug use, practicing unsafe sex, etc.) are also included.

Physical exam

During a physical exam, a health care provider presses on the abdomen to check for tenderness and to determine if the liver is enlarged. The health care provider also checks the skin and eyes for yellowing (an indicator of jaundice).

Blood tests

Blood tests commonly used to diagnose viral hepatitis include liver function tests and a hepatitis panel. A liver function test can show if liver enzymes are high, which is an indicator of liver damage.

A hepatitis panel checks for hepatitis antibodies and antigens, which are produced in response to a hepatitis viral infection.

Other tests

Other tests that may be ordered during the diagnostic process include the following:

  • Ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
    Imaging tests are used to check for liver damage or enlargement and to rule out other conditions, such as bile duct obstruction or liver tumors.
  • Liver biopsy
    A liver biopsy involves the removal of a small tissue sample from the liver. The tissue is then examined to determine the extent of liver damage.
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