Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a serious infection that is spread through blood, semen and other body fluids. This includes:

  • Sexual contact
  • Needle sharing
  • Accidental needle sticks
  • Mother to baby during childbirth

About 1.25 million people in the United States have hepatitis B. It is the most common cause of cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer in the world.

Hepatitis B is caused by a viral infection. Many adults who have hepatitis B can recover from it. This is known as an acute infection. Your body gets rid of the virus, usually within six months. If you get the virus as an adult, you usually have an acute infection.

Some people have the infection for longer. This is known as a chronic infection. It can last your whole life. It can lead to liver scarring (cirrhosis), liver failure and liver cancer. If you get the virus as a child, you usually develop a chronic infection.

People Who Are at Risk for Hepatitis B Include:

  • People who have unprotected sex with an infected partner
  • People who have unprotected sex with more than one partner
  • Men who have sex with other men
  • People who have a history of sexually transmitted diseases
  • People who use intravenous drugs
  • People in kidney failure who have hemodialysis (blood filtering)
  • People receiving a transplanted organ infected with hepatitis B virus
  • People who work in jobs that expose them to human blood
  • People who travel to areas with high infection rates (Central and Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe)
  • People who live with an infected person

Women who are pregnant should be screened for hepatitis B to determine if their babies need treatment to prevent passing the disease to them.

Symptoms

If you have hepatitis B, you may never notice symptoms. When they do happen, symptoms can include:

  • Appetite loss
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Joint pain
  • Fever
  • Stomach pain
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

If you have symptoms that you cannot explain or that worry you, see your doctor.

Diagnosis

Hepatitis B is diagnosed by blood tests that determine:

  • If you have an active or chronic infection and are able to pass the infection on to others
  • If you have ever had the infection and are immune to getting it again
  • If you are immune to it because you had the vaccine
  • How much virus is in your body; this helps to decide on treatment

You may need other tests to see how your liver is working. This can include a biopsy (tissue sample) of your liver.

Treatment

Our liver specialists (hepatologists) treat hepatitis B and can help you keep your liver as healthy as possible. If you have an acute (short-lived) infection, you may not need treatment. Your doctor may suggest ways to help relieve symptoms such as nausea and low energy. You may need more blood tests later to make sure the infection is gone.

If you know you have been exposed to hepatitis B, tell your doctor right away. A treatment can be given within 24 hours of exposure to the virus, which may reduce your risk of infection.

Chronic hepatitis B infection is treated with antiviral medication. If your liver has been seriously damaged, you may need a liver transplant.

How to Prevent Hepatitis B

There isn’t a cure for hepatitis B. A vaccine (shot) can help prevent it. Most newborns and children in the United States are vaccinated against hepatitis B. Children and adults who have not been vaccinated should do so, especially if they are at risk.

Below are other ways to prevent hepatitis B:

  • Have sex only with partners you know do not have the infection or another sexually transmitted disease.
  • Use a latex or polyurethane condom with any sexual contact.
  • Check areas you travel to for hepatitis B risk and ask your doctor about the vaccine. You need three shots in six months to develop immunity, so plan ahead.
  • Do not share needles. Get help to stop using illegal drugs.
  • Use sterile needles if you give yourself shots.
  • Be careful if you get tattoos and piercings. Make sure equipment is sterile and the facility is reputable.

If you have hepatitis B:

  • Avoid sexual contact. Tell your sexual partners about your infection, and practice safe sex by using latex condoms. This helps lower the risk, but does not make contact completely safe.
  • Tell anyone you have had sexual contact with that you have hepatitis B so they can be tested and avoid spreading it to others.
  • Tell your doctor if you are pregnant so your baby can be treated at birth.
  • Do not donate blood or organs.
  • Do not share syringes or needles.
  • Do not share toothbrushes or razor blades (they can have traces of blood).

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