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Hepatitis B Overview

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Updated May 13, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Hepatitis B Overview

A person with Jaundice caused by acute Hepatitis infection. You can see how the whites of his eyes are yellowed.

Photo courtesy of CDC/Dr. Thomas F. Sellers/Emory University (1963)

Hepatitis B is one of five well-known types of hepatitis that can infect humans. All of the hepatitis viruses affect the liver, but they have different modes of transmission and cause different levels of damage.

Hepatitis B Symptoms

Approximately 70% of people who become infected with hepatitis B will show some symptoms of the virus. Hepatitis B symptoms usually appear within three months of infection, and may include some or all of the following: jaundice (yellowing of the skin/whites of the eyes), fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, low grade fever, and flu-like symptoms. In general, children are less likely to experience symptoms than adults.

The probable severity of a hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection is closely related to age. Fortunately, 94% of adults and older children who are infected with HBV will clear the virus within four months after they first experience symptoms. The rest remain chronically infected with the virus. Chronic infection with HBV, which is more common in infants and children who become infected with the virus than in adults, can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, or death. Ninety percent of infants who are infected with hepatitis B during delivery will become chronically infected with the virus, as will approximately 30% of children who become infected between the ages of one and five years.

Hepatitis B Transmission

Hepatitis B can be transmitted sexually, through injection drug use, during delivery of an infant, and through other types of blood exposure (toothbrushes, razors, etc.). To reduce the risk of sexual transmission, it is important to use condoms every time you have sex. Avoiding sharing personal items that may have become contaminated with blood, such as toothbrushes or razor blades, is also essential. HBV can remain infectious outside of the body for up to seven days, so it is important always wear gloves when cleaning up blood - even if it has dried. A 1:10 solution of bleach and water can be used to kill the virus on most surfaces.

Because of the severity of hepatitis B infection in infants, it is particularly important for pregnant women to get tested for the virus. Although there is no cure for hepatitis B, there are treatments, and ways of reducing the likelihood that it will be transmitted to infants during delivery.

Hepatitis B Testing and Treatment

Hepatitis B can be diagnosed using a simple blood test. On average, most people with a new, acute, infection will test positive for the virus within four weeks, although it may take some people up to two months before their infection is detectable.

There is no treatment for acute infection with hepatitis B. Most people, over the age of five, who are infected with the virus will clear the infection on their own within 15 weeks of first having symptoms. Chronic infection with hepatitis B is treatable, but not curable, and individuals infected with HBV should avoid alcohol because it can make their liver health worse. Even with treatment, between 15% and 25% of individuals who are chronically infected with hepatitis B will eventually die of chronic liver disease.

Prevention

Hepatitis B may be the only completely preventable sexually transmitted disease. A vaccine has been available that protects against the virus since 1982. Many doctors recommend routine vaccination for children and teenagers, and adults who were not vaccinated during their childhood are also good candidates for the vaccine. The HBV vaccine protects individuals for at least 23 years, and is one of the safest vaccines on the market (though it should not be given to people who are allergic to yeast). For people who lack health insurance, or for whom the vaccine is not covered, some health departments make the vaccine available for free or at very low cost.

If you are fit any of the following criteria, you should strongly consider vaccination:

  • People with multiple sex partners
  • People with a prior diagnosis of an STD
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People who have a sexual partner with hepatitis
  • People who use injection drugs, or who have partners who use them
  • People who share a household with someone chronically infected with hepatitis
  • Health care workers
  • Dialysis patients

Sources:
The CDC Viral Hepatitis/Hepatitis B Fact Sheet
The CDC Viral Hepatitis/Hepatitis B FAQ Page

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