Hepatitis B is a serious disease caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Infection with this virus can cause scarring of the liver, liver failure, liver cancer, and even death.
Hepatitis B is spread in infected blood and other bodily fluids such as semen and vaginal secretions. It is spread in the same way that the virus that causes AIDS (HIV) is spread but hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious. About 30% of people who are infected with hepatitis B in the U.S. do not know how they got it.
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In most adult cases (up to 95%), hepatitis B causes limited infection. Usually people manage to fight off the infection successfully within a few months, developing an immunity that lasts a lifetime. (This means you won't get the infection again). Blood tests show evidence of this immunity, but no signs of active infection. Unfortunately, this is not true in infants and young children in which 90% of infants and 30% of children will develop a chronic infection.
While the majority of adults with hepatitis B recover completely, a small percentage of them can't shake the disease and become carriers. Carriers can transmit the disease to others even when their own symptoms have vanished.
Some carriers go on to develop chronic hepatitis B. Chronic hepatitis is an ongoing infection of the liver that can lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis, or hardening of the liver, causes liver tissue to scar and stop working.
If you are carrying the virus you should not donate blood, plasma, body organs, tissue, or sperm. Tell your doctor, dentist, and sex partner that you are a hepatitis B carrier.
How Common Is Hepatitis B?
Approximately 43,000 Americans contract hepatitis B each year, making infection with this virus about twice as common as infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. However, rates have greatly declined since the 1980's when around 208,000 Americans were infected each year. This decrease in infection rates is, in large part, due to the increased use of the HBV vaccine.
It's estimated that up to 1.4 million people living with chronic hepatitis B in the U.S.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Hepatitis B?
Symptoms of acute infection (when a person is first infected with hepatitis) include:
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes and/or a brownish or orange tint to the urine)
Unusually light colored stool
Unexplained fatigue that persists for weeks or months
Flu-like symptoms such as fever, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting
Often, symptoms occur one to six months after exposure. An estimated 30% of those infected do not have any symptoms at all.
People with chronic active hepatitis experience similar symptoms, but their fatigue is much more severe, and they can have confusion or disorientation.