Hepatitis B is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus. The virus is passed from person to person through bodily fluids, including blood or semen.
Hepatitis B can cause a range of symptoms, such as:
- abdominal pain
- dark-colored urine
- yellowing of the skin or eyes
Hepatitis B isn’t curable, but ongoing research is looking into the use of DNA technology to prevent the virus from reproducing in the body. Experts are also looking into ways to use the body’s own immune system kill off the virus. But there needs to be more large, long-term studies done on these potential cures before they become a reality.
While there’s no cure, there are several treatments that can help to manage hepatitis B symptoms. Read on to learn more about the different types of hepatitis B and how they’re treated.
Hepatitis B can be either acute or chronic:
- Acute hepatitis B lasts for a short period of time.
- Chronic hepatitis B lasts for at least six months. People with this type of hepatitis may carry the hepatitis B virus for the rest of their lives.
Most people with acute hepatitis B make a full recovery. Some may never even show any symptoms. But those with chronic hepatitis B often need treatment to help manage the condition. Chronic hepatitis B also increases your risk of developing cirrhosis and certain types of liver cancer.
Someone’s risk of developing chronic hepatitis B depends on when they were first diagnosed with the virus. Children who are diagnosed with hepatitis B, especially those under the age of 5, have a higher risk of the condition becoming chronic. Adults are less likely to develop chronic hepatitis B. Keep in mind that hepatitis B can be present for years before someone starts to show any symptoms.
Acute hepatitis B doesn’t always require treatment. In most cases, a doctor will recommend monitoring your symptoms and getting regular blood tests to determine whether the virus is still in your body.
While you recover, allow your body to rest and drink plenty of fluids to help your body fight off the infection. You can also take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (Advil), to help with any abdominal pain you have.
See a doctor if your symptoms are severe or seem to be getting worse. You may need to take a prescription antiviral medication to avoid potential liver damage.
Like acute hepatitis B, chronic hepatitis B may not require medical treatment to avoid permanent liver damage. In some patients, monitoring symptoms and getting regular liver tests is appropriate.
Treatment generally involves antiviral medications, such as:
- peginterferon alfa-2a injections
- antiviral tablets, such as tenofovir or entecavir
Antiviral medications can help to reduce symptoms and prevent liver damage. But they rarely completely get rid of the hepatitis B virus. Instead, the goal of treatment is to have the lowest viral load possible. Viral load refers to the amount of a virus in a blood sample.
If you have chronic hepatitis B, you’ll likely need to follow up with a doctor every six months for a blood test to determine your viral load and liver health. Based on your results, your doctor may alter your medication dosage. Some people with severe chronic hepatitis B may eventually need a liver transplant.
There’s no cure for hepatitis B, but the condition is easily preventable by taking a few precautions. Hepatitis B is often spread through sexual contact, shared needles, and accidental needle sticks.
You can reduce your risk of developing hepatitis B or spreading the virus to others by:
- using protection, such as condoms, during sexual activity
- getting regularly tested for hepatitis B
- not sharing personal items that might contain blood, such as razors or toothbrushes
- not sharing needles or syringes
If you don’t have access to clean needles, you can find a local needle exchange program using the North American Syringe Exchange Network’s directory for U.S. cities. If you live outside of the United States or can’t find any resources in your city, ask someone who works at your local pharmacy.
The hepatitis B vaccine
The hepatitis B vaccine is one of the most effective ways to prevent hepatitis B. It’s usually divided into three doses, which are given over the course of six months. In many countries, infants receive their first dose of the vaccine at birth.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all children under the age of 19 be vaccinated if they haven’t already received the vaccination. Adults can also get the hepatitis B vaccine, and it’s generally recommended if you have an increased risk of infection due to:
- traveling to or living in a region where hepatitis B is common
- being sexually active with more than one partner
- working in a medical setting
- using intravenous drugs
If you’ve been exposed to the hepatitis B virus and haven’t been vaccinated, try to see a doctor right away. They can administer the first dose of the vaccine, though you’ll need to follow up to receive the remaining doses over the next few months.
They can also prescribe a medication called hepatitis B immunoglobulin. This works quickly against the virus for short-term protection. Both of these options work best when started within 48 hours of exposure to the virus.
There’s no cure for hepatitis B, but there are several treatments that can help with managing symptoms and reducing the risk of long-term health problems, such as cirrhosis. If you have hepatitis B, try to get in for a blood test every six months or so to monitor your viral load and liver health. If you’re at risk of being exposed to the virus, your best bet is to get the hepatitis B vaccine if you haven’t already.