Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus. Most hepatitis B infections clear up within 1-2 months without treatment. When the infection lasts more than six months, it can develop into chronic hepatitis B, which can lead to:
- Chronic inflammation of the liver
- Cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
- Liver cancer
- Liver failure
Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus. This virus is spread through contact with body fluids of an infected person, such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and saliva. A woman infected with hepatitis can pass the virus on to her baby during childbirth.
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Coming in contact with the blood or other body fluids of someone infected with hepatitis B increases your risk for infection. Unlike the hepatitis A virus, hepatitis B virus is not spread through contaminated food or water.
The following situations may increase your risk of getting hepatitis B:
- Having sex with someone infected with hepatitis B or who is a carrier of hepatitis B
- Injecting illicit drugs, especially with shared needles
- Having more than one sexual partner
- Being a man who has sex with men
- Living in the same house with someone who is infected with hepatitis B
- Having a job that involves contact with body fluids, such as:
- First aid or emergency workers
- Funeral directors
- Medical personnel
- Dental assistants
- Police personnel
- Having a sexually transmitted disease at the time you come in contact with hepatitis B
- Traveling to areas where hepatitis B is common, such as China, southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa
- Receiving a blood transfusion prior to 1992 (the year a more reliable test to screen blood was developed, according to Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 15th edition)
- Receiving multiple transfusions of blood or blood products, as hemophiliacs do (risk is greatly reduced with modern blood screening techniques)
- Working or being a patient in a hospital or long-term care facility
- Working or being incarcerated in a prison
- Being bitten so that the skin is broken by someone whose saliva contains the virus
- Being a hemodialysis patient
Symptoms usually appear within 25 to 180 days following exposure to the virus. The most common symptoms are:
- Yellowing skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Fatigue that lasts for weeks or even months
- Abdominal pain in the area of the liver (upper right side)
- Loss of appetite
- Joint pain
- Low-grade fever
- Dark urine and light-colored stool
- Widespread itching
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Hepatitis B is diagnosed with blood tests, which are also used to monitor its effects on the liver. For chronic cases, a liver biopsy may be needed. A biopsy is the removal of a sample of liver tissue for testing.
The symptoms of hepatitis B can be treated with medication. Patients with uncomplicated cases can expect to recover completely. Patients with chronic hepatitis B are sometimes [or may be] treated with medication to reduce the activity of the virus and prevent liver failure.
- Interferon alfa-2b (Intron A) injection
- Lamivudine (Epivir-HBV) oral medication
Chronic hepatitis B patients should avoid anything that can further injure the liver. These include:
- Certain medications, dietary supplements, and herbs (Discuss these substances with your doctor before taking them.)
Chronic hepatitis B patients should prevent the spread of their infection by:
- Telling their doctors, dentists, and sexual partner(s) that they have hepatitis B
- Never donating blood, organs, or tissue
- Discussing their hepatitis B status with their doctor during pregnancy or before becoming pregnant to insure the baby receives treatment
Hepatitis B can be prevented through vaccination, which consists of three injections over a six-month period. Protection is not complete without all three injections. Anyone at increased risk for hepatitis B should be vaccinated.
In addition, to prevent the transmission of hepatitis B :
- Use condoms or abstain from sex
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
- Do not inject drugs. If you use IV drugs, get treatment to help you stop. Never share needles or syringes.
- Do not share personal items that might have blood on them, such as:
- Manicuring tools
- Pierced earrings
- If you get a tattoo or body piercing, make sure the artist or piercer properly sterilizes the equipment. You might get infected if the tools have someone else's blood on them.
- If you are a health care or public safety worker:
- Get vaccinated against hepatitis B.
- Always follow routine barrier precautions and safely handle needles and other sharp instruments.
- Wear gloves when touching or cleaning up body fluids on personal items, such as:
- Cover open cuts or wounds.
- Use only sterilized needles for drug injections, blood testing, ear piercing, and tattooing.
- If you are pregnant, have a blood test for hepatitis B. Infants born to mothers with hepatitis B should be treated within 12 hours after birth.