Basics & Facts
Although hepatitis B cases have decreased dramatically (by about 82%) since routine vaccination was implemented in 1990, there are still thousands of new cases reported every year. In addition, it’s thought that of the estimated 43,000 new infections of this virus that occur annually, only a fraction are reported since people may not even realize they are infected. Find out how to detect and prevent hepatitis B in this article.
Hepatitis B is a virus that causes an infection of the liver. This virus can become chronic and lead to serious complications, such as cirrhosis or liver cancer. While adults usually recover fully if they become infected, children and infants are much more likely to suffer from chronic infection. The introduction of the hepatitis B vaccine has made it much easier to prevent infection.
Symptoms & Types
Hepatitis B can affect individuals in different ways. While some people experience severe symptoms, others have mild symptoms or even no symptoms at all. Most infants and children with the infection never develop symptoms of this infection. The signs and symptoms of hepatitis B may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
There are two types of hepatitis B:
- Acute: This type of hepatitis B infection lasts less than six months. The body recovers completely within a few months. The vast majority (90%) of health adults who get hepatitis B experience an acute infection of this sort.
- Chronic: This type of hepatitis B infection lasts for more than six months. The body can’t fight off the virus, which can lead to it being a lifelong infection that causes serious complications, such as liver cancer or cirrhosis. Unfortunately, 90% of infants and up to 50% of young children infected with the hepatitis B virus develop a chronic infection.
Causes & Diagnosis
Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus. The virus enters liver cells and multiplies, causing inflammation. This process may also lead to some of the signs and symptoms of the infection.
This virus can be spread from person to person through bodily fluids such as blood or semen. The following are some of the common ways the hepatitis B virus is transmitted:
- Sexual contact (this accounts for almost two-thirds of acute hepatitis B cases)
- Sharing needles, syringes or other drug-injection equipment
- Accidental needle sticks
- Mother to child (during childbirth)
- Direct contact with open sores or blood
- Sharing razors, toothbrushes or similar items
The following factors increase a person’s risk for contracting the hepatitis B virus:
- Having sex with an infected person
- Having multiple sex partners
- Having a sexually transmitted disease
- Being a man that has sexual contact with other men
- Living with someone with chronic hepatitis B
- Being born to an infected mother
- Being exposed to human blood on the job
- Injecting drugs or sharing needles
- Being a hemodialysis patient
- Travelling to countries where hepatitis B is more common
A blood test is used to diagnose hepatitis B. Additional blood tests can distinguish between acute and chronic infection, gauge liver health and reveal if someone is able to easily spread the virus to others.
The hepatitis B vaccine is given over a period of six months in a series of three or four injections. Currently, the vaccine is recommended for all infants beginning at birth. However, anyone who has a risk for contracting this infection who has not been previously vaccinated should also consider getting the vaccine.
Some of the other ways to help prevent getting hepatitis B include:
- Finding out whether sexual partners have hepatitis B
- Using latex or polyurethane condoms during sex
- Not using illegal drugs
- Asking about the vaccine before traveling
- Choosing a reputable, clean shop when getting a tattoo or piercing
Treatment & Management
There is no cure for hepatitis B. However, the following treatments may be used to either help combat the virus or to relieve symptoms relating to the condition:
- Lifestyle changes: Patients with hepatitis B should talk to their doctor about lifestyle changes that may help relieve any symptoms they are experiencing, such as drinking plenty of fluids and getting more rest. People with a chronic infection should avoid alcohol and should always consult their doctor before taking any new medications.
- Medications: The following medications may be used to treat hepatitis B:
- Hepatitis B immune globulin: When taken within 24 hours of contact with the virus, it may help prevent hepatitis B from developing.
- Antiviral medication: These medications may be used for those with chronic hepatitis B to help slow damage to the liver.
- Surgical options: A liver transplant may be used for people with chronic hepatitis B infections that have severely damaged the liver.
In addition, it’s important for people with hepatitis B to use certain methods to prevent spreading the virus. That includes practicing safe sex, informing sexual partners about their status, not donating blood organs and not sharing razors or toothbrushes.
See a doctor if you think you may have hepatitis B or may have been exposed to the virus. If you are worried about contracting hepatitis B, consider getting vaccinated to prevent infection.