What is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a liver disease that can range from mild to a serious, lifelong illness. The hepatitis B virus causes inflammation of the liver which may lead to liver cancer, liver failure and even death. There are two stages to the disease: Acute and chronic.

Acute hepatitis B infection

The early stage (first 6 months) of an hepatitis B infection is called the acute stage and is manageable.

Acute hepatitis B can range from mild illness with very few or no symptoms to a serious condition that may require hospitalization. Some people are able to fight the infection and cure the virus during the early stages.

Chronic hepatitis B infection

The later stage of the hepatitis B infection (longer than 6 months) is known as chronic hepatitis B.

This chronic stage is more serious and may cause lifelong health problems. Hepatitis B can not only affect adults, but babies and children as well.

Left untreated, hepatitis B infections can lead to serious health problems. Each year, approximately 3,000-5,000 people in the United States die from liver damage or liver cancer caused by hepatitis B.

As of 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 800,000 to 1.4 million cases of chronic hepatitis B in the United States.

How is hepatitis B transmitted?

Hepatitis B is most commonly spread through contact with the blood or sexual fluids of an infected person. That is why the hepatitis B virus can be transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sexual intercourse, or by sharing needles, syringes or other drug-injection equipment.

You are also at risk of contracting the virus if you share toiletries such as toothbrushes and razors (since they can come in contact with blood and open sores), or come in contact with open sores or cuts of an infected person.

According to the CDC, hepatitis B is not spread through utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing or sneezing.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

In some cases, people with hepatitis B may be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. However, 70 percent of adults will develop acute hepatitis B-related symptoms.

Symptoms of hepatitis B include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice

On average, hepatitis B symptoms appear 3 months after exposure, but can appear anytime between 6 weeks to 6 months.

If present, symptoms may last a few weeks or up to 6 months. Transmission from an infected person to an uninfected person is possible even when symptoms are not present.

Is hepatitis B curable?

While there is no cure for hepatitis B, more than 90 percent of healthy adults who contract the virus will recover naturally from it within the first year.

Treatment for hepatitis B includes: adequate rest, nutrition and fluid-intake, as well as close monitoring of the liver’s health and the individual’s overall health. Some cases may be more severe and might require hospitalization.

Effects of untreated hepatitis B

Without treatment or close monitoring, acute hepatitis B could lead to chronic hepatitis B. Untreated chronic hepatitis B can lead to liver failure, cirrhosis, liver cancer and even death.

The best way to know if you have hepatitis B is to get tested. Consider getting tested for hepatitis B as part of your routine STD testing or if you are at risk.

Ways to prevent hepatitis B

The number one way to prevent hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated for the virus prior to being exposed to it.

Abstinence from all sexual activities and intravenous drug use are the only other sure-fire ways to prevent contracting hepatitis B.

If you are not willing to abstain from sex, you should practice safer sex by consistently using condoms or dental dams. Being in a monogamous relationship with someone who is not infected with hepatitis B will also prevent infection.

Talking about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) with your new partner before engaging in sexual relationship is another way to prevent getting hepatitis B.

Most common hep B symptoms

  • Mild or no symptoms (70 percent of cases are symptomless)

Symptoms may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Itchiness
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice

How to tell if someone has hepatitis B

Getting tested for hepatitis B is the only way to know if someone is infected with the virus. Our doctors recommend the hepatitis B Surface Antigen with Confirmation by Neutralization Assay test.

This test searches your blood for the hepatitis B antigen and can differentiate between acute (new) and chronic (long- term) infections.

Also, the test can detect if you have been vaccinated and are, therefore, immune to the hepatitis B virus.

How soon do hepatitis B symptoms appear?

In acute hepatitis B cases, symptoms usually appear 3 months after exposure to the virus, but can delay as much as 6 weeks to 6 months post-exposure.

If you show symptoms to the hepatitis B virus or are concerned about a recent exposure, taking a blood test is the best way to know if you are infected.

Although hepatitis B can be detected as early as 3 weeks after exposure, our doctors recommend waiting 6 weeks to get tested.

If present, what are hepatitis B symptoms?

Acute hepatitis B symptoms can mimic flu-like symptoms that may show up anytime from 6 weeks to 6 months after exposure.

Symptoms include unusual feelings of tiredness, lack of hunger, vomiting, stomach aches, fever and joint pain.

Additional hepatitis B symptoms can include clay-colored bowel movements or yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice).

How is hepatitis B transmitted?

Hepatitis B is spread when blood or other bodily fluids that have the hepatitis B virus enter the body of a person who is not infected. Here are the most common ways hepatitis B is spread:

  • Through unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sexual intercourse with an infected person
  • By sharing syringes or other drug-injection equipment
  • Sharing razors or toothbrushes with an infected person
  • Contact with hepatitis B infected blood or open sores
  • Receiving donated whole blood products prior to 1987

You are at higher risk of spreading or contracting hepatitis B if you:

  • Have sex with an individual who has hepatitis B
  • Have multiple sex partners
  • Have an STD
  • Inject drugs
  • Cohabit that an individual who has hepatitis B
  • Are a child born to a hepatitis B infected mother
  • Are exposed to blood on the job (for example, in healthcare setting)
  • Received donated whole blood products prior to 1987

You cannot spread or get hepatitis B from:

  • Mosquito or insect bites
  • Nonsexual skin contact
  • Kissing
  • Sharing utensils
  • Sharing drinks
  • Breastfeeding

Can I unknowingly transmit hepatitis B?

Yes, unknowingly spreading hepatitis B is possible since most infected adults (70 percent) do not appear to have any symptoms. The only way to know that you have hepatitis B is to get tested for it.

Is hepatitis B preventable?

Yes, hepatitis B is preventable. The best way to protect yourself from the hepatitis B virus is to get vaccinated against the virus.

The vaccine series contains an inactive hepatitis B virus that creates antibodies in your body. As a result, if you ever come in contact with the virus, antibodies will already be in your system to protect you from infection.

Vaccinations protect against hepatitis B infections

In order to prevent contracting or spreading hepatitis B infections, getting vaccinated is encouraged if you are sexually active or an intravenous drug user.

If you are not sure that you have been vaccinated for hepatitis B, speak with your healthcare provider. Usually, hepatitis B vaccinations come in three doses given over several months for total immunity and protection from the virus.

What happens if hepatitis B is left untreated?

Acute hepatitis B, if left untreated, can develop into chronic (long-term) hepatitis B, which is more difficult to manage and can lead to liver failure, liver cancer and even death.

If you are diagnosed with acute hepatitis B, it can be treated with proper rest, fluids and liver monitoring by a qualified physician or specialist.

Importance of informing your partner you have hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a serious and contagious liver disease. If you have been diagnosed positive for hepatitis B, it is important to tell your partner.

The sooner you inform your partner, the sooner he or she canget tested and seek medical attention if necessary.

If I have had hepatitis B, can I get it again?

No, you cannot get hepatitis B more than once. More than 90 percent of healthy adults who contract the virus will recover naturally from it within the first year.

Your body reacts to viruses by developing antibodies to fight them off, so if they are exposed to the same virus again, they destroy it.

Is there a cure for acute hepatitis B?

Although this is no cure for hepatitis B, acute cases can be managed with bed rest and proper fluid intake. Most acute hepatitis B cases (approximately 90 percent) dissipate on their own within 6 weeks to 6 months.

Taking a follow-up test can ensure that the virus has been cleared by your immune system. If a hepatitis B infection has been cleared, antibodies have developed in your body, protecting you from the virus for life.

Can chronic hepatitis B be treated or cured?

Chronic (long-term) hepatitis B infection can be treated, but the virus cannot be cleared. Close monitoring by a healthcare provider is crucial to helping avoid or stop the progression of liver diseases caused by hepatitis B.

Treatment plans vary widely and depend largely on each individual’s overall health and their liver’s health.

I have hepatitis B, what can I do to help prevent further liver damage?

It is important to abstain from alcohol to help avoid additional liver damage. Since hepatitis is an infection of the liver, certain medications, like acetaminophen, that can be harmful to this organ should only be taken upon consulting with your doctor.