Contracting the hepatitis B virus (HBV) can lead to a serious liver condition known as hepatitis B infection. While the exact complications from this disease depend on the type of hepatitis B infection, liver cancer is one of the risks associated with long-term infection with this virus.

In fact, experts estimate that over half of all liver cancers worldwide are attributed to viral liver infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hepatitis B in the United States accounts for about 15% of liver cancer cases.

The development of liver cancer from hepatitis B is a serious condition that needs careful medical treatment and ongoing monitoring.

This article will take a closer look at hepatitis B, its connection to liver cancer, and symptoms to watch for.

Hepatitis B (“hep B”) is a type of viral infection that can cause significant swelling (inflammation) and damage to the liver. You can become infected with hepatitis B through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood or semen from someone who has the infection.

Hepatitis B can cause short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) infections. Acute infections last up to 6 months. Chronic infections are longer lasting.

Acute hepatitis B may lead to liver failure, but this is considered rare.

Chronic hepatitis B, on the other hand, carries a higher risk of complications due to long-term inflammation. These complications can include:

The chance of developing chronic hepatitis B from HBV is highly dependent on your age. According to the CDC, about 90% of infants with HBV develop chronic infections, while chronic hepatitis B affects 2% to 6% of adults HBV.

Symptoms of hepatitis B

Hepatitis B doesn’t always cause symptoms. In acute cases, symptoms may develop 2 to 5 months after contracting an infection, while chronic hepatitis B may not cause any symptoms for years after contracting an infection.

Possible symptoms of hepatitis B infection include:

  • yellowish eyes or skin (jaundice)
  • dark yellow urine
  • fever
  • unusual or unexplained fatigue
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea or vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • joint pain
  • gray or clay-colored stools

It’s important to get medical attention if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

It’s important to get regular liver screenings, too. This is because you may not develop any noticeable symptoms of chronic hepatitis B for many years after contracting an infection.

Talk with a doctor about the best screening options for you based on your risk factors.

Having hepatitis B increases the risk of liver cancer. Liver cancer may develop from long-term inflammation and damage caused by a chronic HBV infection. When your liver remains in a long-term state of inflammation, cirrhosis may develop.

As scar tissue takes over the liver, the DNA in healthy cells can also change, allowing malignant (cancerous) tumors to develop.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a primary form of liver cancer. It occurs in about one-third of people with hepatitis B. It’s also one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths worldwide.

While liver cancer itself has been declining in the United States, it is still a deadly cancer. According to the CDC, about 25,000 new cases of liver cancer are diagnosed in men each year, and 11,000 new cases in women. Of these, an estimated 19,000 men and 9,000 women die from the disease.

Liver cancer alone has a 10% to 14% 5-year survival rate, reports the Hepatitis B Foundation. Early detection and treatment can significantly boost this rate to 60% to 70%.

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

Liver cancer and hepatitis B share some similar symptoms, such as jaundice, unexplained fatigue, and loss of appetite. Get medical attention if you notice symptoms such as:

  • abdominal swelling
  • pain or discomfort, or a noticeable lump located beneath your right rib cage
  • pain along your right shoulder blade or in your back
  • unexplained weight loss
  • skin or eyes that look yellow
  • easy bruising or bleeding

Other risk factors for liver cancer

Aside from chronic hepatitis B, other factors that can increase your risk of liver cancer include:

While acute hepatitis B treatment involves symptom relief only, chronic hepatitis B requires antiviral treatment. This can help reduce the overall viral load in the body as well as subsequent liver complications.

Antiviral treatments for hepatitis B are typically taken by mouth. Options include:

  • entecavir (Baraclude)
  • tenofovir alafenamide (Vemlidy)
  • tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Viread)

In some cases, a doctor may also prescribe antiviral shots.

Additionally, hepatitis B requires regular monitoring for cirrhosis and possible liver cancer development. A specialist may recommend blood testing with an ultrasound to check for cirrhosis or subsequent liver cancer.

If you develop liver cancer as a result of hepatitis B, a doctor may recommend a liver transplant.

You can reduce your risk of contracting hepatitis B by avoiding contact with bodily fluids. For example, do not share drug injection needles or equipment. Use a barrier method, like a condom, during penetrative sex.

It’s also important to talk with a doctor about whether you’re up to date on your hepatitis B vaccinations.

The CDC recommends that the following groups receive HBV vaccines:

  • all infants
  • unvaccinated children under the age of 19
  • adults ages 19 to 59
  • adults over the age of 60 who are considered high risk
  • any child or adult who may be considered high risk

If you think you may have been exposed to HBV, talk with a doctor about getting a hepatitis B booster shot. They may also recommend taking a medication called hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) within 24 hours of exposure.

If a doctor diagnoses chronic hepatitis B, be sure to get regular liver screenings.

Liver cancer is one complication that may develop from chronic hepatitis B. This happens because of severe scarring in the liver from long-term infection, which can increase the risk of developing cancerous tumors.

The earlier hepatitis B is detected, the better the outcome in terms of both HBV and liver cancer. Additionally, if you do test positive for hepatitis B, a doctor will want to monitor your liver for any potential complications.

Talk with a doctor about hepatitis B vaccinations and other preventive measures. Also alert them to any new and unusual symptoms that could indicate a liver problem.