Hepatitis B virus (HBV) infects the liver. There’s a very effective vaccine that prevents HBV infection. The vaccine is usually given to babies, but some teens, especially those from other countries may have not received the vaccine. Check with your health care provider to make sure you’ve received all of your shots.
Who gets Hepatitis B?
Anyone can get Hepatitis B. People who have not been immunized are at risk, especially if they have unprotected sex, share needles, or get a tattoo from someone that does not properly sterilize the equipment.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) the rate of Hepatitis B acute infections have decreased in the United States because more people are getting vaccinated. However, there are about 257 million people living with chronic Hepatitis B around the world. Therefore, it’s a good idea to talk to your health care provider about your vaccination status before traveling!
How is Hepatitis B spread?
Hepatitis B can live in all body fluids, but it’s mostly spread through contact with blood, semen, and vaginal fluids. HBV is most often spread through sharing needles and through sexual contact. Pregnant women with Hepatitis B can pass the infection to their baby. Babies can receive special treatment and the vaccination right after birth to help prevent infection.
You can get infected by:
- Having sex (vaginal, anal, or oral) with an infected person
- Sharing razors, toothbrushes, and nail clippers with someone who is infected
- Sharing needles to inject drugs, glucose monitors with an infected person
- Using non-sterile needles or equipment to do tattooing, ear piercing, or acupuncture
Hepatitis B cannot be spread through food, water, breastfeeding, kissing, or handholding.
What are the symptoms of Hepatitis B?
People infected with Hepatitis B don’t always have symptoms. It can take 6 weeks to 6 months after you’re exposed to Hepatitis B virus for symptoms to appear. Most people have symptoms about 3 months after exposure. Some people have no symptoms.
Infection with Hepatitis B can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). People who have an acute infection will often “clear” the virus and become immune to future infection. Those who have chronic infections are called “carriers” and can continue to pass the virus to others, even years later.
Symptoms of HBV infection can include:
- Tiredness/no energy
- Loss of appetite/weight loss
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
- Aching muscles or joints
- Stomach pain
- Nausea, vomiting
- Dark-colored urine
- Light-colored bowel movements (stools)
- Tender, swollen liver (found during exam by health care provider)
How is Hepatitis B diagnosed?
Hepatitis B is diagnosed by a blood test done by your health care provider.
Is there a cure for Hepatitis B?
No, there isn’t a cure for Hepatitis B, but most people recover and have no symptoms after 6 months. Treatment involves getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding alcohol. Your health care provider will check to make sure your liver is working normally by doing a liver function test on a blood sample.
Some people carry the virus without symptoms and can pass it on to others. Hepatitis B can also cause long-term symptoms, permanent liver disease, and in some cases cancer of the liver. There are some prescription medications available to people who have the long-term (chronic) infection.
How can I prevent spreading Hepatitis B?
If you’re infected, don’t have sex or share personal items (razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers) with anyone until your health care provider says it’s okay. You can have Hepatitis B and not even know it and be able to pass it on to others. Make sure you tell all current and past sexual partners that you have Hepatitis B, since you could have passed the infection to them before you knew you had it. Encourage them to see their health care provider as soon as possible to get tested and check if they’ve already been vaccinated. They will likely need a booster dose of the HBV vaccine and they could need a dose of medication (gamma globulin) if they haven’t been fully vaccinated against HBV. Once your health care provider says it’s okay to have sex, be sure to use latex condoms (polyurethane for those allergic to latex) during oral, anal, or vaginal sex.
How can I avoid getting Hepatitis B?
Your best protection against Hepatitis B is a vaccine. It’s given in 3 separate shots. You need to have all of them for the vaccine to best protect you. You can lower your risk of getting Hepatitis B by not having sexual intercourse or using a latex condom if you do have sex. If you find out that your partner has Hepatitis B, check with your health care provider right away to find out if you need treatment.
You can also lower your risk of getting Hepatitis B by:
- Not sharing needles or syringes
- Not sharing instruments (such as needles) used in ear piercing, tattooing, and hair removal
- Not sharing toothbrushes, straws or razors
In the United States alone, more than 2,000 people die each year from liver damage caused by Hepatitis B. Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself. Ask your health care provider if you’ve been vaccinated.