Hepatitis B is liver inflammation caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). HBV is one of five types of hepatitis virus. The others are hepatitis A, C, D, and E.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that 2,000 to 4,000 people in the United States die each year from complications caused by hepatitis B.
HBV infection can be acute or chronic.
Acute hepatitis B causes symptoms to appear quickly in adults. Children rarely develop acute hepatitis B. Any infections in children are far more likely to be chronic.
Chronic hepatitis B develops slowly. Symptoms may not be noticeable unless complications develop. According to the CDC, up to 1.4 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis B.
Hepatitis B is highly contagious. It spreads through contact with infected blood, saliva, and other bodily fluids. Symptoms may not occur for a few days or longer after contracting the virus. However, you are still contagious, even without symptoms.
Possible methods of transmission include:
- transfer from mother to baby during birth
- being pricked with a contaminated needle
- close contact with a person with HBV
- oral, vaginal, and anal sex
- using an infected toothbrush or razor
Certain groups are at particularly high risk of HBV infection. These include:
- men who have sex with other men
- people with multiple sex partners
- people with chronic liver disease
- people with kidney disease
- people over the age of 60 with diabetes
- those traveling to countries with a high incidence of HBV infection
Symptoms of hepatitis B may not be apparent for months or years. However, common symptoms include:
- dark urine
- joint pain
- loss of appetite
- abdominal discomfort
- yellowing of the whites of the eyes (sclera) and skin (jaundice)
Any symptoms of hepatitis B need immediate treatment. Let your doctor know immediately if you have been exposed to hepatitis B. You may be able to prevent infection.
Doctors can usually diagnose hepatitis B with routine or requested screening tests. Some reasons a person may need screening are if they:
- have come in contact with someone with hepatitis B
- have traveled to a country where hepatitis B is common
- have been in jail
- use drugs
- receive kidney dialysis
- are pregnant
- are men who have sex with men
- have HIV
To screen for hepatitis B, your doctor will perform a series of blood tests.
Hepatitis B Surface Antigen Test
A hepatitis B surface antigen test shows if you’re contagious. A positive result means you have hepatitis B and can spread the virus. A negative result means you don’t have hepatitis B. This test doesn’t distinguish between chronic and acute infection.
Hepatitis B Core Antigen Test
The hepatitis B core antigen test shows whether you’re currently infected with HBV. Positive results usually mean you have chronic hepatitis B. It may also mean you’re recovering from acute hepatitis B.
Antibody Hepatitis B Surface Antigen Test
An antibody hepatitis B surface antigen test shows whether you’re immune to HBV. A positive test means it is very unlikely you will contract hepatitis B. There are two possible reasons for a positive test. You may have been vaccinated, or you may have recovered from an acute HBV infection.
Liver Function Tests
Hepatitis B symptoms can mimic the symptoms of other conditions, including liver diseases.
Liver function tests check your blood for heightened enzymes from your liver. The results of these tests can reveal whether your liver is under stress. It can also identify signs of disease.
If these tests are positive, you might require testing for hepatitis B. Hepatitis viruses are a major cause of liver damage.
Hepatitis B Immune Globulin
Talk to your doctor immediately if you have been in contact with someone who has hepatitis B within the last 24 hours. It may be possible to prevent infection with an injection of HBV immune globulin. This is a solution of antibodies that work against HBV.
Treatment Options for Hepatitis B
Acute hepatitis B usually doesn’t require treatment. Most people will overcome an acute infection on their own. However, bed rest will help you recover.
Antiviral medications can treat chronic hepatitis B. These help you fight the virus. They may also reduce the risk of future liver complications.
You may need a liver transplant if hepatitis B has severely damaged your liver. A liver transplant means a surgeon will remove your liver and replace it with a donor liver. Most donor livers come from deceased donors.
You may have complications if you don’t receive early treatment for hepatitis B. These include:
- liver scarring (cirrhosis)
- liver failure
- kidney cancer
- kidney failure
- liver cancer
Another possible complication is hepatitis D infection. Only people with hepatitis B can contract hepatitis D. A combined infection can cause serious liver problems.
The hepatitis B vaccine is the best way to prevent infection. Vaccination is optional. The following groups should receive the hepatitis B vaccine:
- all infants, at the time of birth
- any children and adolescents who weren’t vaccinated at birth
- adults being treated for a sexually transmitted infection
- people living in institutional settings
- people whose work brings them into contact with blood
- HIV-positive individuals
- men who have sex with men
- people with multiple sexual partners
- injection drug users
- family members of those with hepatitis B
- individuals with chronic diseases
- people traveling to areas with high rates of hepatitis B
In other words, just about everyone should receive the hepatitis B vaccine. It’s a relatively inexpensive and very safe vaccine.
There are also other ways to reduce your risk of HBV infection. You should always ask sexual partners to get tested for hepatitis B. Use a condom when having anal, vaginal, or oral sex. Avoid drug use. If you’re traveling internationally, check to see if your destination has a high incidence of hepatitis B.