Hepatitis symptoms in children – signs to spot and when to seek help

Cases of hepatitis in children are nearly 10 times higher than average this year, as doctors remain perplexed by the outbreak of the mysterious illness.

Hepatitis occurs when there is an inflammation of the liver, which can damage and destroy liver cells.

Recent figures by the UK Health Security Agency show that 197 children have been diagnosed with acute hepatitis this year, in comparison to 20 cases typically found in UK hospitals.

The report revealed on Friday that 11 children required a liver transplant, while none in the UK have died.

While the health agency launched an investigation in April after hospitals reported a rise in cases, experts are still mystified by the outbreak of severe liver damage in children.

With theories spanning from a common stomach bug, known as adenovirus 41F, to genetic susceptibility, it is crucial to pick up any tell-tale signs of the mystery illness at an early stage.

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What are the common signs of acute hepatitis in children?

Symptoms vary from child to child and some children don’t have any symptoms.

The most common signs are as follows:

  • Flu-like symptoms

  • Yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes (jaundice)

  • Fever

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Loss of appetite

  • Not feeling well

  • Stomach pain or discomfort

  • Diarrhoea

  • Joint pain

  • Sore muscles

  • Itchy red hives on the skin

  • Clay-coloured stools

  • Dark-coloured urine

You should visit your GP if your child has any persistent or troublesome symptoms that you think could be caused by hepatitis.

The latest report from the UK Health Security Agency claims the rate of new cases appears to have slowed.

It states: “Potential reporting lags mean that the rate of new cases is uncertain, though the current rate is more consistent with plateauing than exponential growth.”

Scientists investigating the illness suspect adenovirus 41F may be involved in the outbreak, but the virus does not normally cause liver problems in otherwise healthy children.

Tests on the youngsters with hepatitis showed that 68 percent were positive for adenovirus, mostly in the blood.

Experts are exploring whether the affected children have a genetic susceptibility to hepatitis, of it the type of adenovirus identified in most children, has mutated into a form that can trigger the disease.

It is possible that an infection may induce an abnormal immune response in some children, which attacks the liver tissue.

Calum Semple, professor in child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, said: “This could well be a very, very common infection by one virus, or more viruses, and the vast majority of us don’t even know we’ve had it, but there might be a genetic predisposition that means some children go on to get severe disease.”

Prof Semple claims there is nothing to suggest that Covid-19 is directly involved, though an indirect effect has not been ruled out.

There is no link to the Covid-19 vaccine, as a majority of cases are in children under five years old, who are too young to receive the jab.

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