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Hepatitis B

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis is a redness and swelling (inflammation) of the liver. It sometimes causes permanent liver damage.

There are several types of hepatitis. In hepatitis B, the liver is infected with the hepatitis B virus. This causes inflammation. The liver isn’t able to work the way it should.

The liver is a large organ that lies up under the ribs on the right side of your belly (abdomen). It helps filter waste from your body, makes a fluid called bile to help digest food, and stores sugar that your body uses for energy.

In the U.S., hepatitis B is one of the most common diseases that can be prevented with a vaccine.

Hepatitis B can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). It tends to become chronic most often in infants and young children, and less often in people infected as adults.

  • Acute hepatitis B. This is a brief infection (6 months or less) that goes away because the body gets rid of the virus.
  • Chronic hepatitis B. This is a long-lasting infection that happens when your body can’t get rid of the virus. It causes long-term liver damage.

What causes hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by infection with the hepatitis B virus. People pass the hepatitis B virus to each other. This happens when you come into contact with another person’s infected:  

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Vaginal secretions
  • Saliva

Common ways this virus is spread are through:

  • Needle sticks
  • Sharp instruments
  • Shared razors and toothbrushes
  • Unprotected sex with an infected person
  • Sharing drug paraphernalia

Babies may also get the disease if their mother has the virus. Infected children can spread the virus to other children if they play together often or if a child has many scrapes or cuts. Body fluids need to come in contact to spread it, however, so just playing next to a friend will not give someone hepatitis B. 

Who is at risk for hepatitis B?

Anyone can get hepatitis B by coming into contact with the blood or body fluids of someone who is infected with hepatitis B.

Some people are at higher risk for getting hepatitis B. They include:

  • Children born to mothers who have hepatitis B
  • People from Asian and Pacific Island nations
  • People living in long-term care facilities or who are disabled
  • People living in households where someone is infected with the virus
  • People who have a blood-clotting disorder, such as hemophilia
  • People who need dialysis for kidney failure
  • People who use IV (intravenous) drugs
  • People who have unprotected heterosexual or homosexual sex, especially if they have many sex partners
  • People who have a job where they are in contact with human blood, body fluids, or needles
  • People who work or live in a prison
  • People who had blood transfusions, blood products, or organ transplants before the early 1990s
  • People taking medicines that weaken (suppress) the body’s infection-fighting system (immune system)
  • People with HIV or hepatitis C infections
Pregnant women should be tested for hepatitis B.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B has a wide range of symptoms. It may be mild, without symptoms, or it may cause chronic hepatitis. In some cases, hepatitis B can lead to liver failure and death.

Each person’s symptoms may vary. The most common symptoms of hepatitis B include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Fever
  • Muscle soreness
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Dark urine
  • Clay colored or light colored stools
  • Belly or abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Easy bleeding and bruising

The symptoms of hepatitis B may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider to be sure.

How is hepatitis B diagnosed?

To see if you have hepatitis B, your healthcare provider will give you a physical exam and do a blood test.

If your healthcare provider suspects chronic hepatitis B, he or she may take a small tissue sample (biopsy) from your liver with a needle. These samples are checked under a microscope to find out the type of liver disease and how severe it is.

An ultrasound test is usually done as well to see if the liver looks very diseased. 

How is hepatitis B treated?

Hepatitis B is not treated unless it becomes a long-term (chronic) infection. Then medicines are used to try to slow down or stop the virus from damaging the liver. Most people get oral medicines but some get an injection. The decision to treat is complicated and based on many things, including test results, and how advanced your disease is.

Your symptoms will be closely watched and managed as needed. If severe liver damage takes place, you may need a liver transplant.

There is no cure for hepatitis B. Treatment is helpful to decrease the amount of virus in your blood and decrease risk of complications. 

What are the complications of hepatitis B?

Long-term or chronic hepatitis B can cause severe liver damage. The most severe liver damage is called cirrhosis. The liver stops functioning properly. This could lead to the need for a liver transplant.

Liver failure can lead to death.

The risk of liver cancer is higher in people with hepatitis B.

What can I do to prevent hepatitis B?

A vaccine is available to prevent hepatitis B. It is given in 3 shots (injections) over 6  months. The vaccine is suggested for everyone age 18 years and younger, as well as for adults over age 18 who are at risk for the infection.

You can protect yourself and others from hepatitis B by:

  • Using condoms during sex
  • Making sure any tattoos or body piercings are done with tools that have been cleaned  properly and do not have any germs (sterile)
  • Not sharing needles and other drug materials
  • Not sharing toothbrushes or razors
  • Not touching another person’s blood or body fluids unless you wear gloves

Key points

  • Hepatitis B is a redness and swelling (inflammation) of the liver. It sometimes causes permanent liver damage.
  • Hepatitis B is caused by infection with the hepatitis B virus.
  • People pass the hepatitis B virus to each other through infected blood and body fluids such as semen, vaginal secretions, and saliva.
  • Anyone can get hepatitis B, but some people are at higher risk.
  • You can protect yourself by using condoms during sex, not sharing needles, and not sharing toothbrushes or razors.
  • Hepatitis B can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic).
  • Chronic hepatitis B can lead to severe liver damage and the need for a liver transplant.
  • The risk of liver cancer is higher in people with hepatitis B.
  • A vaccine is available to prevent hepatitis B.


Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Kolbus, Karin, RN, DNP, COHN-S
Online Medical Reviewer: Lehrer, Jenifer, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/6/2016
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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