Hepatitis B is a serious infection that has the potential to cause severe liver damage, including increased risks of chronic liver disease and death. A common route of transmission for hepatitis B is from birthing parent to child during pregnancy and birth.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent hepatitis B from being transmitted from parent to baby. Keep reading to find out more about these methods and how to keep a baby safe from hepatitis B infection.

Hepatitis B is an infection that causes inflammation and possible damage to the liver. The prefix “hep-” refers to the liver while “itis” is used to describe inflammation.

The liver is an important organ to your body because it breaks down nutrients and medications, releases substances that help fight infection, and acts as a filter for the blood.

Hepatitis B is a type of viral hepatitis. Examples of other viral hepatitis forms include:

  • Hepatitis A: People can acquire hepatitis A by eating or drinking contaminated foods and via contact with the stool of a person who has hepatitis A. Handwashing is an important way to prevent transmission. There is a vaccine series for hepatitis A. The condition can cause illness for a few weeks to a few months but doesn’t usually result in lasting liver damage.
  • Hepatitis B: People can acquire hepatitis B through contact with bodily fluids, including when a parent who has hepatitis B gives birth to a baby — also called mother-to-child transmission. Hepatitis B can cause mild sickness to serious and potentially lifelong illness. A vaccine series exists and all infants should receive the hepatitis B vaccine to prevent liver-related illnesses.
  • Hepatitis C: People can acquire hepatitis C through contact with the blood of someone who has hepatitis C, which can include babies born to a person with hepatitis C. No vaccine is available for hepatitis C. The condition can cause a chronic infection that leads to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Hepatitis B can cause a serious infection in babies. The condition is also preventable through vaccines and treatment.

Hepatitis B spreads through contact with blood or body fluids of someone who have hepatitis B. For babies, the most common transmission method is when a birthing parent who has hepatitis B passes the virus to the baby during birth.

A baby’s eyes, nose, or mouth can come in contact with a birthing parent’s blood during the birth process. If this parent has hepatitis B, the baby can become infected.

While a person can get a hepatitis B infection at any time in their life, experiencing a hepatitis B infection at birth can cause higher liver disease rates compared with a person who gets hepatitis B later in life.

Babies with hepatitis B don’t usually experience symptoms; however, they may develop later.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 30% to 50% of people 5 years and older with hepatitis B have symptoms. These may include:

  • abdominal pain
  • clay-colored stool
  • dark urine
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • jaundice (yellow skin or eyes)
  • joint pain
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Questions for your doctor or healthcare professional

If you are pregnant and worried if you have hepatitis B or wonder about ways to prevent spreading hepatitis B to your baby, here are a few questions to ask your healthcare professional:

  • When will I have a hepatitis B test?
  • What were my results?
  • How likely is it that I can pass hepatitis B to my baby?
  • How does the healthcare facility protect my baby from getting hepatitis B?
  • How will I know if my baby is protected against hepatitis B?
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If a baby received the hepatitis B vaccine at birth, doctors can perform postvaccination serologic testing (PVST) after the series is completed. This testing can confirm that a child has immunity to hepatitis B.

Because the hepatitis B vaccine is given in a series, doctors usually do the PVST when a baby is between 9 and 12 months of age. This test may also be performed 1 to 2 months after a child has completed their hepatitis B vaccine series if the vaccination series was delayed.

If a person tests positive for hepatitis B during pregnancy, there are measures a healthcare professional can take to reduce the likelihood that the baby will become infected.

If a parent has hepatitis B during pregnancy, the CDC recommends that their babies should receive hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) and a dose of single-antigen hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of birth. The baby should then continue their hepatitis B vaccine series.

This treatment protocol can reduce the risks of parental transmission to babies by more than 90%.

Some birthing parents have higher levels of hepatitis B in their blood, which increases the likelihood a baby may have chronic hepatitis B despite treatment. In this instance, a doctor may recommend that a birthing parent take antiviral therapy. These therapies can reduce the risks of transmission to a baby.

There is no cure for hepatitis B. No specific treatments exist for hepatitis B in babies once a baby is already infected. Healthcare professionals will usually recommend supportive care, which means treating any symptoms a baby may have and trying to maintain hydration.

Doctors may also recommend regular monitoring for signs of affected liver function throughout life if a person has hepatitis B. Medications called antivirals exist to help treat hepatitis B. However, these medications have side effects and aren’t usually suitable for babies.

The most significant risk factor for hepatitis B in babies is being born to a birthing parent who has hepatitis B. Some birthing parents may have hepatitis B but are unaware they have it because the virus doesn’t always cause symptoms. For this reason, doctors will usually test for hepatitis B as part of routine prenatal care.

Another risk factor is close contact with family members after birth who have hepatitis B. For this reason, doctors recommend babies get a full hepatitis B vaccine series to help prevent infection.

If a baby gets hepatitis B, there is a 90% chance they will develop a lifelong infection. For 10% of babies with hepatitis B, the infection may resolve.

Untreated hepatitis B in babies can lead to severe and potentially deadly health complications. Hepatitis B can cause a number of serious effects in the liver, including liver disease or liver cancer. An estimated 25% of babies with chronic hepatitis B infections will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Through prenatal care and blood testing, expectant birthing parents can find out if they are at risk for transmitting hepatitis B to their babies.

Treatments and vaccines can help prevent babies from having a lifelong infection that could increase their risk for early death.

If you are expecting, talk with your doctor about ways to protect you and your baby from hepatitis B.