Toxic hepatitis is an inflammation of your liver in reaction to certain substances to which you're exposed. Toxic hepatitis can be caused by alcohol, chemicals, drugs or nutritional supplements.
In some cases, toxic hepatitis develops within hours or days of exposure to a toxin. In other cases, it may take months of regular use before signs and symptoms appear.
The symptoms of toxic hepatitis often go away when exposure to the toxin stops. But toxic hepatitis can permanently damage your liver, leading to irreversible scarring of liver tissue (cirrhosis) and in some cases to liver failure, which can be life-threatening.
The liver is your largest internal organ. About the size of a football, it's located mainly in the upper right portion of your abdomen, beneath the diaphragm and above your stomach.
Mild forms of toxic hepatitis may not cause any symptoms and may be detected only by blood tests. When signs and symptoms of toxic hepatitis occur, they may include:
See your doctor right away if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.
Overdoses of some medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), can lead to liver failure. Get immediate medical care if you think an adult or a child has taken an overdose of acetaminophen. Signs and symptoms of a possible acetaminophen overdose include:
If you suspect an acetaminophen overdose, immediately call 911, your local emergency services or, in the United States, a poison control center at 800-222-1222. Do not wait for symptoms to develop. An acetaminophen overdose can be fatal but can be successfully treated if addressed early after ingestion.
Toxic hepatitis occurs when your liver develops inflammation because of exposure to a toxic substance. Toxic hepatitis may also develop when you take too much of a prescription or over-the-counter medication.
The liver normally removes and breaks down most drugs and chemicals from your bloodstream. Breaking down toxins creates byproducts that can damage the liver. Although the liver has a great capacity for regeneration, constant exposure to toxic substances can cause serious, sometimes irreversible harm.
Toxic hepatitis can be caused by:
Factors that may increase your risk of toxic hepatitis include:
The inflammation associated with toxic hepatitis can lead to liver damage and scarring. Over time, this scarring, called cirrhosis, makes it difficult for your liver to do its job. Eventually cirrhosis leads to liver failure. The only treatment for chronic liver failure is to replace your liver with a healthy one from a donor (liver transplant).
A normal liver (left) shows no signs of scarring. In cirrhosis (right), scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue.
Because it's not possible to know how you'll react to a particular medication, toxic hepatitis can't always be prevented. But you may reduce your risk of liver problems if you:
Tests and procedures used to diagnose toxic hepatitis include:
A liver biopsy is a procedure to remove a small sample of liver tissue for laboratory testing. A liver biopsy is commonly performed by inserting a thin needle through your skin and into your liver.
Doctors will work to determine what's causing your liver damage. Sometimes it's clear what's causing your symptoms, and other times it takes more detective work to pinpoint a cause. In most cases, stopping exposure to the toxin causing liver inflammation will reduce the signs and symptoms you experience.
Treatments for toxic hepatitis may include:
Liver transplant. When liver function is severely impaired, a liver transplant may be the only option for some people. A liver transplant is an operation to remove your diseased liver and replace it with a healthy liver from a donor.
Most livers used in liver transplants come from deceased donors. In some cases, livers can come from living donors who donate a portion of their livers.
Make an appointment with your family doctor or a general practitioner if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you. If you're thought to have a liver problem, such as toxic hepatitis, you'll likely be referred to a liver specialist (hepatologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot to cover, it's a good idea to be well-prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready and know what to expect from your doctor.
For toxic hepatitis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow more time to cover points you want to address. Your doctor may ask: