Hepatitis B

Definition

Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Most people who become infected with HBV are able to clear the virus from their bloodstream and develop immunity. People who have not cleared their virus after six months are considered to have chronic hepatitis B - a condition that often requires treatment to prevent further damage to the liver. Left untreated, chronic hepatitis B can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, liver failure and death.

Symptoms

Sometimes a person with HBV infection has no symptoms at all. The older you are, the more apt you are to have symptoms. You might be infected with HBV (and be spreading the virus) and not know it. If you have symptoms they might include:

  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fever
  • weakness or tiredness
  • abdominal pain in the area of the liver (upper right quadrant)
  • dark urine and light-colored stool
  • joint pain
  • yellowing skin and eyes (jaundice)

How Long Until Symptoms Appear?

Someone who has been exposed to hepatitis B may have symptoms 1 to 4 months later. Some people with hepatitis B don't notice symptoms until they become quite severe. Some have few or no symptoms, but even someone who doesn't notice any symptoms can still transmit the disease to others. Some people carry the virus in their bodies and are contagious.

Risk Factors

You can get hepatitis B through the blood and other body fluids from an infected person. It's primarily a sexually transmitted disease, but you can also pick it up through used needles, and through body/ear piercing or tattooing with dirty equipment. An infected mother can pass it to her child at birth. Health care and emergency service workers can get it from needle stick injuries and blood splashes in the eyes, nose, mouth or on broken skin. You can't get hepatitis B from someone coughing, or from hugging or using the same dishes.

How Can the Spread of Hepatitis B be Prevented?

  • getting the hepatitis B vaccine
  • using latex condoms correctly and every time you have sex
  • do not shoot drugs; if you shoot drugs, stop and get into a treatment program; if you can't stop, never share needles, syringes, water, or "works", and get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B
  • do not share personal care items that might have blood on them (razors, toothbrushes)
  • if you are a health care or public safety worker, get vaccinated against hepatitis B, and always follow routine barrier precautions and safely handle needles and other sharps

Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no cure for hepatitis B.There are currently several treatments for chronic hepatitis B that can increase a person's chance of clearing the infection. Treatments are available in the form of antivirals such as lamivudine and adefovir and immune system modulators such as interferon alpha. There are several other antivirals under investigation. Roughly, all of the currently available treatments, when used alone, are about equally efficacious. However, some individuals are much more likely to respond than others. It does not appear that combination therapy offers any advantages. Your eligibility for treatment and the need for treatment will be determined by your liver specialist.