Hepatitis B(HBV)

Overview

The hepatitis B virus (HBV), also called Hep B, is a serious infection that affects the liver.

About 1.25 million people in the United States are currently living with hepatitis B. It’s the most common cause of scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and liver cancer in the world.

Many adults who have the hep B virus can recover fully from it, usually within 6 months. This is known as acute hepatitis B infection.

However, some people have the infection for a longer period of time – this is known as chronic hepatitis B infection. It can last an entire lifetime and lead to liver scarring, liver failure, and liver cancer. If you contract the virus as a child, you usually develop chronic HBV.

It’s important to seek treatment early if you’re exposed to the hepatitis B virus to increase your chances of a smooth recovery. If you think you’ve been exposed, find a GI specialist near you.

Causes

The hepatitis B virus can be transmitted through:

  • Blood, semen and other body fluids
  • Sexual contact
  • Sharing needles
  • Accidental needle sticks
  • An infected mother to her baby during childbirth

Symptoms

Hepatitis B symptoms can include:

  • Appetite loss
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Joint pain
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pale stools

Many people who become infected with hepatitis B experience no symptoms. Be sure to have a conversation with your doctor if you have been or suspect you may have been exposed.

Diagnosis

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

To diagnose hepatitis B, your doctor will ask you about any symptoms you may have. They’ll perform a physical exam, and may order blood or laboratory tests to diagnose hepatitis B, such as:

  • Hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAG) testing: This test is used to detect the HBV surface antigen in your blood, which is the earliest sign of a hepatitis B infection. In fact, it may be present before symptoms even occur.
  • Hepatitis B surface antibody testing: The presence of this surface antibody signals that the infection has reached the end of its active stage and you’re no longer contagious, and can no longer spread the virus to others.
  • Hepatitis B e-antigen (HBeAg) testing: This test detects an antigen that is only present during an active hepatitis B infection.
  • Hepatitis B DNA testing: High levels of this DNA suggest the virus is multiplying and the patient is very contagious.

These hepatitis B tests are important because they determine:

  • If it’s really hepatitis B or something else. There are four different types of hepatitis you may have that may cause similar symptoms
  • If you have an active or chronic HBV infection and are at risk of passing the infection on to others
  • If you have ever had the infection and are immune to getting it again
  • If you’re immune to it because you had the vaccine
  • How much of the HBV virus is in your body (This helps determine the best treatment option.)

Services & Treatment

If you have a short-lived hepatitis B infection, you may not need treatment. But if you have chronic hepatitis B, you’ll be treated with antiviral medication. If your liver has been seriously damaged due to hepatitis, you may need a liver transplant.

Since there is no cure for hepatitis B, prevention is important. Get the hepatitis B vaccine if you didn’t have it as a baby or child. If you have children, be sure to get them vaccinated (most newborns and children in the United States are vaccinated). Other ways to prevent hepatitis B include:

  • Have sex only with partners you know do not have the infection or another STD (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 HBV vaccine. You need 3 shots in 6 months to develop immunity, so be sure to 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. When going to a professional, make sure equipment is sterile and the facility is respected.

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