How Do Microbes Make People Sick With Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, which can be caused by certain medications, inflammatory disease, and, most often, hepatitis viruses. Otherwise known as germs, viruses are microscopic organisms, sometimes referred to as microbes or microorganisms,

There are five known types of viral hepatitis, commonly known as hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E. Each of these five viruses can lead to a different type of liver infection, which can result in liver inflammation, liver scarring, liver failure, or cancer.

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What Do Microbes Do?

Microbes, like hepatitis viruses, can cause damage to the body through many different processes. The viruses that cause hepatitis are specifically prone to enter and attack the hepatic cells (cells of the liver). Each of the hepatitis viruses affects the liver differently—the severity, timing, and long-term effects of each hepatitis virus differ.

They don't always cause acute symptoms, but common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin, eyes, and dark urine).

Specific effects include:

  • Hepatitis A causes inflammation of the liver, typically approximately 28 days after infection. This results in acute illness, with fatigue, a fever, jaundice, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. This infection usually resolves on its own within a few weeks without treatment.
  • Hepatitis B can damage liver cells. It doesn't always cause an acute illness, but it can cause liver failure or liver cancer over time. The effects can be severe and include weight loss, confusion, and may lead to death if it's not treated.
  • Hepatitis C usually doesn't cause symptoms in the early stage of the infection, and over time it can cause liver failure or cancer of the liver.
  • Hepatitis D does not cause illness on its own, but a coinfection with hepatitis B can cause acute liver inflammation and long-term liver disease.
  • Hepatitis E causes inflammation of the liver about six weeks after the infection and usually resolves on its own within a month, but can cause prolonged disease if a person is immunosuppressed.

It's important to know that infection with hepatitis A or hepatitis E can lead to severe dehydration and even death. While these viral infections can resolve without treatment. the acute effects may need to be treated with medical care, such as intravenous fluid or medication to reduce the fever.

Microbes as the Cause of Hepatitis

The five viruses that cause hepatitis are transmitted differently:

  • Hepatitis A and E are spread through ingestion of food or water that has been contaminated by fecal material from an infected person, also known as the fecal-oral route of transmission.
  • Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids such as semen.
  • Hepatitis C is transmitted through exposure to infected blood.
  • Hepatitis A can be transmitted through sexual contact, and hepatitis C can be transmitted rarely from sexual contact.
  • Hepatitis D is also transmitted through contact with infected blood or other body fluids, but only people already infected with hepatitis B are at risk because hepatitis B allows hepatitis D to survive in the body.

Treatments for hepatitis B, C, and D suppress the virus in the human body to protect the liver and other organs from damage.

How to Prevent Exposure to Hepatitis-Causing Microbes

Effective vaccines are available to help protect against hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

The best way to protect yourself against exposure to the other hepatitis viruses is by:

  • Using condoms
  • Avoiding sharing needles, toothbrushes, and razors
  • Selecting a place that has a sterile environment when getting tattoos and piercings
  • Washing hands thoroughly after using the restroom
  • Being careful when eating raw food
  • Being careful of drinking water when traveling if you are unsure of sanitation
2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Health Organization. Hepatitis D.

  2. World Health Organization. Hepatitis E.

Additional Reading
  • Microbe Post, a blog from the Microbiology Society
  • The World Health Organization

By Charles Daniel
 Charles Daniel, MPH, CHES is an infectious disease epidemiologist, specializing in hepatitis.