Cases of hepatitis in children have recently increased in the US, but there are currently only two such cases under investigation in Michigan.
While there’s not much reason to worry just yet, you should monitor your children if they develop specific symptoms, said Rosemary Olivero, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
In children with severe symptoms, doctors see elevated liver enzymes due to a swollen liver or, rarely, liver failure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new alert and is monitoring more than 100 cases in the US.
“We’re seeing this primarily in younger children ages 1 to 6,” Dr. Olivero said. “At Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, we serve nearly half of the state of Michigan. It is very possible that we will have serious cases of hepatitis here at some point.”
If a child shows signs of hepatitis, doctors will run appropriate tests to see if a strain of adenovirus, a common respiratory virus, might be causing the liver inflammation, Dr. Olivero said.
He answered some of the most common questions about the condition and offered advice to parents.
What is causing this new symptom with hepatitis?
“The most likely viral cause of this is a strain of adenovirus, a very contagious and common virus that spreads in waves throughout the year,” Dr. Olivero said. “It can cause the common cold, conjunctivitis, vomiting, diarrhea or pneumonia, and it can also cause a high fever, and that can last for a long time. Another thing that this virus can cause is elevated liver enzymes.”
Viruses move in waves across the country, so it’s certainly possible this virus is among us right now, he said.
She offers a note of reassurance for parents: the same virus will not affect all children in the same way.
“There’s an interaction of how the body responds to a virus, and it’s not always going to show up in hepatitis with serious liver outcomes,” he said.
He also noted that COVID-19 is another virus that can cause elevated liver enzymes. She does not believe, however, that the two are linked in this recent influx of hepatitis.
How worried should parents be?
“I wouldn’t be too anxious,” Dr. Olivero said. “We are heading into the time of year where we will see fewer viral infections, as we will be outdoors and not in close proximity to others for long periods indoors.”
He also said that this disease appears to be extremely rare at this time, with only about 100 cases in the US at this time.
What signs and symptoms should parents watch for?
“Simply put, hepatitis is inflammation of the liver,” Dr. Olivero said. “The virus has an effect on the liver that will cause abdominal pain on the right side of the abdomen.”
In children, watch for loss of appetite, diarrhea or vomiting, or any yellowing of the skin or yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Fever is also quite common in these cases, he said.
How can parents and children avoid getting sick?
“Stay away from other people who are sick,” Dr. Olivero said. “If you know someone who has a fever or cold, bulging eyes or a runny nose, avoid contact with them.”
He also highlighted the importance of good hand hygiene.
“Wash your hands and clean your shopping cart before you shop,” he said. “We are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the precautions we use to stay healthy will work for many viruses.”
What is life like after having hepatitis?
“Acute viral hepatitis is usually reversible,” Dr. Olivero said. “However, if the liver is not working properly, your child will likely need to stay in the hospital until the liver recovers.”
She said that the liver is an underrated organ in the body. It works as a bloodstream cleanser and metabolizes many things that we put into our bodies. It also produces clotting factors for your blood if you are cut.
“Very rarely would a case requiring a liver transplant be irreversible,” he said.