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.

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 or are currently infected with hepatitis B, 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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How Do I Know if I Have It?

When you’re first infected, the warning signs include:

  • Jaundice. (Your skin or the whites of the eyes turn yellow, and your pee turns brown or orange.)
  • Light-colored poop
  • Fever
  • Fatigue that persists for weeks or months
  • Stomach trouble like loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting
  • Belly pain

Symptoms may not show up until 1 to 6 months after you catch the virus. You may not feel anything, and about a third of the people with this disease don’t. They only find out through a blood test.

How Is It Diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks you have it, he’ll give you a complete physical exam. He’ll also check to see if your liver is healthy. The diagnosis is made with blood tests that look for the hepatitis virus and cells that fight infection, called antibodies.

If your disease becomes chronic, your doctor might take a tissue sample from your liver, called a biopsy. This will tell him how severe your case is.

How Is It Treated?

If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, get to a doctor within 2 weeks. He’ll give you a vaccine and a shot of hepatitis B immune globulin. This protein boosts your immune system and helps it fight off the infection.

If you do get sick, your doctor may put you on bed rest to help you get better faster.

You’ll have to give up things that can hurt your liver, like alcohol and acetaminophen. Check with your doctor before taking any other drugs, herbal treatments, or supplements. Some of them can harm this organ, too. Also, eat a healthy diet.

If the infection goes away, the doctor will tell you you’re an “inactive carrier.” After that, he may just watch you closely.

If the infection is active for longer than 6 months, he’ll tell you that you have “chronic active hepatitis B.” He may prescribe some of these medications to treat it.

  • Interferon alfa (Intron A, Roferon A, Sylatron). This medicine boosts your immune system. You take it as a shot for at least 6 months. It doesn’t cure the disease. It treats liver inflammation. Long-acting interferon, peginterferon alfa2a (Pegasys, Pegasys Proclick) can also help. This drug does have side effects. It can make you feel bad all over, depressed, and zap your appetite. It also lowers your white blood cell count, which makes it harder to fight off infection.
  • Lamivudine (3tc, Epivir, Epivir A/F, Epivir HBV, Heptovir). It comes as a liquid or tablet you take once a day. Most people don’t have a problem with it. But if you take it for a long time, the virus might stop responding to the drug.
  • Adefovir dipivoxil (Hepsera). This drug, which you take as a tablet, works well for people who don’t respond to lamivudine. High doses can cause kidney problems.
  • Entecavir (Baraclude). This is the newest drug for hepatitis B. You can take it as a liquid or tablet.
  • Tenofovir (Viread). This drug comes as a powder or tablet. If you take it, your doctor will check often to make sure it doesn’t hurt your kidneys.

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Hepatitis B and Pregnancy

If you’re pregnant, you might pass the virus to your baby at birth. It’s less likely to happen during your pregnancy.

If your baby gets the virus and isn’t treated, he could have long-term liver problems. All newborns with infected mothers should get hepatitis B immune globulin and the vaccine for hepatitis at birth and during their first year of life.

How Is It Prevented?

To help keep a hepatitis B infection from spreading:

  • Get vaccinated (if you haven’t already been infected).
  • Use condoms every time you have sex.
  • Wear gloves when you clean up after others, especially if you have to touch bandages, tampons, and linens.
  • Cover all open cuts or wounds.
  • Don’t share razors, toothbrushes, nail care tools, or pierced earrings with anyone.
  • Don’t share chewing gum or pre-chew food for a baby.
  • Make certain that any needles for drugs, ear piercing, or tattoos -- or tools for manicures and pedicures -- are properly sterilized.
  • Clean up blood with one part household bleach and 10 parts water.

Can I Get It From Blood Transfusions?

Donated blood is tested for the virus, so your chances of getting the disease from a transfusion are low. Any infected blood is discarded.

Who Should Get the Hepatitis B Vaccine?

All newborn babies should get vaccinated. You should also get the shot if you:

  • Come in contact with infected blood or body fluids of friends or family members
  • Use needles to take recreational drugs
  • Have sex with more than one person
  • Work in a day care center, school, or jail

Is There a Cure for Hepatitis B?

No. But again, it often goes away in a few months, and it occasionally disappears in people who have a chronic case of the disease.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on July 28, 2016

Sources

SOURCE:

CDC.

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