Viral Hepatitis Clinical Presentation

Updated: Jul 07, 2023
  • Author: Naga Swetha Samji, MD; Chief Editor: BS Anand, MD  more...
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The clinical presentation of infectious hepatitis varies with the individual, as well as with the specific causative virus. Some patients may be entirely asymptomatic or only mildly symptomatic at presentation. Others may present with rapid onset of fulminant hepatic failure (FHF). The classic presentation of infectious hepatitis involves four phases, as follows:

  • Phase 1 (viral replication phase): Patients are asymptomatic; laboratory studies demonstrate serologic and enzyme markers of hepatitis

  • Phase 2 (prodromal phase): Patients experience anorexia, nausea, vomiting, alterations in taste, arthralgias, malaise, fatigue, urticaria, and pruritus, and some develop an aversion to cigarette smoke; when seen by a healthcare provider during this phase, patients are often diagnosed as having gastroenteritis or a viral syndrome

  • Phase 3 (icteric phase): Patients may note dark urine, followed by pale-colored stools; in addition to the predominant gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and malaise, patients become icteric and may develop right upper quadrant pain with hepatomegaly

  • Phase 4 (convalescent phase): Symptoms and icterus resolve, liver enzymes return to normal

Hepatitis A

The incubation period of hepatitis A virus (HAV) is 2-7 weeks (average, 28 days). Clinical symptoms then develop, often with a presentation similar to that of gastroenteritis or a viral respiratory infection. The most common signs and symptoms include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, fever, hepatomegaly, jaundice, dark urine, anorexia, and rash.

HAV infection usually occurs as a mild self-limited disease and confers lifelong immunity to the virus. Chronic HAV infection does not occur. [9]

Hepatitis B

The incubation period for hepatitis B virus (HBV) is 30-180 days (average, approximately 75 days). Patients then enter the prodromal or preicteric phase, characterized by the gradual onset of anorexia, malaise, and fatigue. During this phase, as the liver becomes inflamed, the liver enzymes start to elevate, and the patient may experience right upper quadrant pain. About 15% of patients develop an illness resembling serum sickness. These patients may experience fever, arthritis, arthralgias, or an urticarial rash.

As the disease progresses to the icteric phase, the liver becomes tender, and jaundice develops. Patients may note that their urine darkens and their stools lighten in color. Other symptoms in this stage include nausea, vomiting, and pruritus.

From this point on, the clinical course may be highly variable. Whereas some patients experience fairly rapid improvements in their symptoms, others go on to experience prolonged disease with slow resolution. Still others may have symptoms that periodically improve, only to worsen later (relapsing hepatitis). Finally, there is an unfortunate subset of patients in whom the disease rapidly progresses to FHF; this may occur over days to weeks.

Hepatitis C

The incubation period for hepatitis C virus (HCV) is 15-150 days, with symptoms developing anywhere from 5-12 weeks after exposure. During acute HCV infection, symptoms may appear similar to those of HBV infection. In up to 80% of cases, however, the patients are asymptomatic and do not develop icterus. [1, 18]

Hepatitis D

The incubation period of hepatitis D virus (HDV) is approximately 35 days. Patients simultaneously infected with HBV and HDV often have an acute, self-limited infection. [48, 55] Fewer than 5% of these patients develop chronic HDV infection.

Chronic HBV carriers who become superinfected with HDV tend to have a more severe acute hepatitis; 80% of these patients go on to develop chronic HDV infection. Chronic infection with HBV and HDV may lead to fulminant acute hepatitis and severe chronic active hepatitis with progression to cirrhosis. [48, 55] Over the long term, as many as 70-80% of these patients have evidence of chronic liver disease with cirrhosis, compared with only 15-30% of patients with chronic HBV alone.

Hepatitis E

The incubation period of hepatitis E virus (HEV) is 2-9 weeks (average, 45 days). HEV usually causes an acute self-limited disease similar to HAV infection. Fulminant disease does occur in about 10% of cases. In women who are pregnant, HEV infection has a case-fatality rate of 15-20%. [34] No reports exist of chronic infection with HEV. [34]


Physical Examination

Physical findings in patients with hepatitis vary with the type of hepatitis and the time of presentation.

Patients often present with low-grade fever. Those experiencing significant vomiting and anorexia may show signs of dehydration, such as tachycardia, dry mucous membranes, loss of skin turgor, and delayed capillary refill.

Patients in the icteric phase may have icterus of the sclerae or mucous membranes, or discoloration of the tympanic membranes. The skin may be jaundiced and may reveal macular, papular, or urticarial rashes.

In viral hepatitis, the liver may be tender and diffusely enlarged with a firm, sharp, smooth edge. If the patient has a nodular liver or a mass is palpated, clinicians should suspect an abscess or tumor.