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Understanding Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is an infection of your liver. It can cause scarring of the organ, liver failure, and cancer. It can be fatal if it isn’t treated.

It’s spread when people come in contact with the blood, open sores, or body fluids of someone who has the hep B virus.

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The good news is that most cases of the disease don’t last a long time. Your body fights it off within a few months, and you’re immune for the rest of your life. That means you can't get it again.

What Happens to People Who Have It?

Your doctor will know you’ve recovered when your blood tests show no signs of active infection.

But some people don't get rid of the infection. If you have it for more than 6 months, you’re what’s called a carrier, even if you don’t have symptoms. This means you can give the disease to someone else through:

  • Unprotected sex
  • Contact with your blood or an open sore
  • Sharing needles or syringes

Doctors don’t know why, but the disease does goes away in a small number of carriers. For others, it becomes what’s known as chronic. That means you have an ongoing liver infection. It can lead to cirrhosis or hardening of the organ. It scars over and stops working. Some people also get liver cancer.

If you’re a carrier, don’t donate blood, plasma, body organs, tissue, or sperm. Tell anyone you could infect, whether it’s a sex partner, or your doctor or dentist, that you have it.

How Common Is Hepatitis B?

The number of people who get this disease is down, the CDC says. Rates have dropped from an average of 200,000 per year in the 1980s to around 18,000 in 2012. People between the ages of 20 and 49 are most likely to get it.

Only 5% to 10% of adults and children older than 5 who have hepatitis B end up with a chronic infection. The numbers aren’t so good for those younger than 5 (25% to 50%) and even higher for infants infected at birth (90%).

As many as 1.4 million people in the U.S. are carriers of the virus.

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