Hepatitis B is a serious liver disease caused by infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). This disease is one of five types of viral hepatitis, which is liver inflammation caused by a virus. The others are A, C, D and E.
Hepatitis B Virus
HBV infection can be acute (short term) or chronic (long term). In infected people, about 30% have no symptoms. People with chronic infections can develop chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis or liver cancer. Approximately 2 billion people worldwide have been infected with HBV. Due to the serious effects of HBV infection, roughly 600,000 people die from it each year. 1
Viruses are very small germs that cause disease as they grow in the body. With HBV, damage comes from the body’s effort to fight the infection. The special disease-fighting cells the body uses to fight disease can inflame the liver.
Since 1982, a vaccine has been available against HBV. It is 95% effective in stopping HBV infections and their long-term effects.1
How Hepatitis B Spreads
You can get an HBV infection by having sexual contact with an infected person or by having contact with blood that has the virus in it. This can happen in many ways, including sharing a toothbrush or nail clippers with an infected person, using unclean needles to inject drugs, or getting a tattoo or acupuncture in a place that uses unclean needles. HBV can also be given to a baby when an infected woman gives birth. Finally, HBV is a major hazard for health care workers, mainly because they handle blood and needles. HBV is 50 to 100 times easier to spread than the AIDS virus, but you cannot get the virus by casual contact. 1
Risk Factors for Hepatitis B
People are at risk for HBV infection if they:
- Are infected with the AIDS virus (HIV)
- Were born from or have parents born in places with high HBV infection rates (Asia, Africa and the Caribbean)
- Are receiving hemodialysis
- Have more than one sexual partner
- Are male and having sexual contact with other males.
Symptoms of Hepatitis B Infection
Early HBV symptoms can appear any time between 30 days and six months after infection. People who have no symptoms, however, can still spread the virus to others. Symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea, vomiting
- Low fever
- Joint and muscle aches
- Jaundice, causing yellowed skin and dark urine
As time passes, the infection can become chronic (long term), causing liver damage and cirrhosis.
Diagnosis of Hepatitis B Infection
Blood tests are used to diagnose HBV infection. The blood tests are done to find antibodies, proteins that the immune system makes when it finds viruses or other infections in the body. Antibodies are used by the body to help fight off the infection.
Blood tests look for two kinds of HBV proteins: The hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and the HBV core antigen. The blood tests show whether you have an acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) infection. A positive test for HBsAg tells your doctor that you have an active HBV infection.
Other laboratory tests (albumin level, liver function tests, prothrombin time) can monitor liver damage from the virus infection.
Treatment for Hepatitis B Infection
There is no treatment for short-term (acute) HBV infection, other than staying comfortable and maintaining a healthy diet with plenty of fluids. Your doctor will also want to monitor liver function and liver damage.
To treat long-term (chronic) HBV infection, doctors prescribe antiviral drugs and interferon. If there is severe liver damage, a liver transplant may be needed. Long-term infection can also result in liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma. Other complications include chronic persistent hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver failure. In about 1% of cases, HBV infection leads to death.2
To prevent HBV infection, children should be given the HBV vaccine at birth, and the complete series of shots should be given by age 6 months.2 ) Health care workers should also get the vaccine. If a person is exposed to HBV, the HBV vaccine or a hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG) shot may stop the infection.