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What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B (HBV) is a virus that infects the liver, causing inflammation. It can cause liver cell damage, leading to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and ultimately, liver failure. It is the number one cause of liver cancer.

How is hepatitis B spread?

Transmission of HBV happens when blood or bodily fluids from an infected person enter the body of a person who is not protected from HBV. The highest amounts of HBV are found in blood, semen and vaginal fluids. Because of new testing regulations, transmission of HBV does not occur from blood transfusions. Most acute HBV infections in the United States are among adolescents and young adults.

Who is at risk for hepatitis B?

  • Asian-Americans
  • People who live in the same household of infected people
  • Infants born to infected mothers and infants and children of immigrants from areas with high rates of HBV infection
  • Health care and public safety workers
  • Hemodialysis patients
  • Travelers to countries with high rates of HBV
  • Persons with multiple sex partners or having a sexually transmitted disease (STD)
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Intravenous drug users

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

The average incubation period is 90 days, but ranges from 60 to 150 days. During early stages of infection, about 70% of adults will develop symptoms.  People with chronic hepatitis may not have symptoms and not know they are infected, and can easily spread the hepatitis B virus to others.

Symptoms include:
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • light colored stools and/or dark urine
  • fatigue
  • stomach pain
  • joint pain
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and/or vomiting

How is hepatitis B diagnosed?

There are several tests for hepatitis B.
  • Hepatitis B Surface Antigen (HBsAg): When this is positive, it means you have HBV and can pass the infection to others.
  • Antibody To Hepatitis B Core Antigen: (Anti-HBc)When this is positive or reactive, it means that you have HBV or had it in the past.
  • Antibody To Hepatitis B Surface Antigen (Anti-HBs): When this is positive, it means that you are protected from HBV (either from vaccination or from past infection) and cannot pass the disease to others
  • IgM anti-HBc: When this is positive or reactive, it means you have very recently been infected with HBV

How is hepatitis B evaluated and treated?

Individuals should seek medical professional with experience treating HBV and be monitored regularly for signs of liver disease and evaluated for possible treatment. Avoid alcohol, and check with a health professional before taking any medication that could harm the liver.

People who develop acute hepatitis B are generally not treated with antiviral drugs because the disease can resolve on its own. But for treatment of chronic hepatitis B, two oral drugs (tenofovir and entecavir) and pegylated interferon (an injected drug) are available and considered first-line options. These treatments suppress HBV and improve outcomes. However, treatment is not a cure and small amounts of HBV may persist in the liver for decades.

How is hepatitis B prevented?

The best protection is prevention (add prevention, hand-washing, etc.) but a combined vaccine for hepatitis A and B is available for people over 18 years of age. Routine vaccination is recommended for young people 18 years and younger. Vaccination is also recommended for risk groups of all ages. The usual dosage is 3 shots given over 6 months.