Thumbnail image of: Liver, Gallbladder, and Pancreas: Illustration

Hepatitis B

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver. The liver is one of the largest organs and a very important part of your body. Some of the functions of the liver include:

  • It helps your body get rid of some medicines and harmful substances.
  • It makes bile, which helps your body digest fats.
  • It stores sugar, which your body uses for energy.
  • It makes many proteins, which are the building blocks for all cells in the body.

When you have hepatitis, the liver is irritated (inflamed). It may be swollen and tender. Areas of liver tissue may be destroyed.

Hepatitis B is a serious, sometimes severe type of hepatitis. It can be life threatening.

What is the cause?

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). You can get the virus from contact with the blood or other body fluids of someone who is infected with the virus. The disease can be spread by people who do not have any symptoms and may not know they carry the virus.

A pregnant woman can pass the infection on to her baby if she is infected when the child is born.

You have a higher risk for infection if:

  • You have lived, traveled, or were born in an area with high rates of HBV and you have not been vaccinated against hepatitis.
  • You have unprotected sex with an infected person.
  • You use illegal IV drugs and share needles.
  • You have HIV/AIDS.
  • You get a piercing or permanent tattoo with unclean equipment
  • You have contact with the blood or open sores of an infected person.
  • You live or work in a healthcare setting, nursing home, or rehabilitation center.

Hepatitis B is not spread by hugging or kissing, sneezing, coughing, or casual contact. It is not spread routinely through food or water.

What are the symptoms?

You may not have symptoms until several weeks or months after you are infected with the virus. Or you may never have any symptoms.

If you do have symptoms, they may include:

  • Yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Feeling tired
  • Dark urine
  • Pain just below the ribs on your right side, especially if you press there
  • Bowel movements that are whitish or light yellow and may be looser than normal
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Fever

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • A liver biopsy, which is the removal of a small sample of tissue for testing

How is it treated?

If you have hepatitis B, you need to protect your liver from damage. Your healthcare provider will recommend that you avoid alcohol for at least 6 months. When you have hepatitis, alcohol speeds up damage to your liver and makes it harder for your body to fight the infection. You may be given shots to keep you from getting hepatitis A, which is another type of viral hepatitis. The shots help prevent more damage to your liver from other types of hepatitis.

You will have tests every few weeks to check your liver to make sure your liver is starting to work normally and is not damaged. It may take 6 months before tests of your liver show that it is working normally again.

Your treatment will depend on whether your hepatitis B infection is new or is ongoing (chronic).

  • If your infection is new, the usual treatment is rest and a healthy diet and lifestyle. Usually you do not need to stay at the hospital for treatment unless you get dehydrated from nausea and vomiting. The symptoms generally last several weeks.
  • If you have chronic hepatitis B, the virus affects your liver for several months or years. You need regular checkups and antiviral medicine. The infection can scar the liver and cause serious liver damage. The damage may be severe enough to cause your liver to stop working. This is called liver failure. HBV also increases your risk for liver cancer.

Hepatitis B is very contagious. Your provider may test your blood to see if you are still contagious during follow-up visits. Some people who get hepatitis B can keep infecting others even after they feel completely recovered. A blood test will tell if you are still contagious.

If you have hepatitis B and are thinking about getting pregnant or could get pregnant, you should discuss this with your provider. Some antiviral medicines used to treat hepatitis can cause serious harm or death to an unborn baby. The baby can be affected if the mother or the father is taking the medicine. You may need to use 2 types of birth control during and for several months after treatment.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for taking medicine for your symptoms. You need to avoid taking medicines that can damage the liver more (for example, acetaminophen). Ask your provider which medicines you can safely take for your symptoms, such as itching and nausea.
  • Follow your provider’s advice for how much rest you need. It is best to avoid too much physical exertion until your provider says it’s OK.
  • Eat several small, high-protein, high-calorie meals and snacks every day, even when you feel nauseated. Sipping soft drinks or juices, and sucking on hard candy may help you feel less nauseated.
  • Don’t drink alcohol unless your provider says it’s safe.
  • Ask your provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent hepatitis B?

The hepatitis B shot is recommended if you have a higher risk for HBV or if you have diabetes, kidney failure, or long-term liver disease of any kind.

All children should get a 3-shot series of hepatitis B shots in infancy. Ask your healthcare provider if you need hepatitis B shots. A hepatitis B antibody blood test can see if you have had the shots or if your shots are still protecting you from hepatitis.

To avoid spreading the disease to others:

  • Don’t let others come into contact with your blood or other body fluids, including saliva.
  • Clean any blood spills or stains with a mixture of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts water.
  • Cover your cuts and open sores.
  • Don’t share anything that might have blood on it, such as needles, toothbrushes, or razors.
  • Avoid sexual contact with others until your provider says it’s OK. Then use latex or polyurethane condoms during foreplay and every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Have just 1 sexual partner who is not having sex with anyone else.
  • Don’t donate blood, body organs, other tissues, or sperm.
  • Tell your dentist and all health care providers that you have hepatitis B.

All people who live with you should get the HBV vaccine. Three shots of the HBV vaccine can prevent infection with the hepatitis B virus. The second shot is given 1 to 2 months after the first shot. The third shot is given 4 to 6 months after the first shot.

There are special concerns if you are pregnant and have hepatitis B or are at risk of getting hepatitis.

  • If you do not have hepatitis B but you have a higher risk for HBV, your provider may recommend that you get hepatitis B shots to prevent infection. Although it is best to get this vaccine before you are pregnant, it can be given safely during pregnancy.
  • A baby born to an infected mother should be given HBIG (hepatitis B immune globulin) and the first dose of the hepatitis vaccine within 12 hours after birth. This will help keep the baby from having HBV and from becoming a carrier of the hepatitis virus. In most cases, if the baby gets the recommended shots right after birth, breast-feeding should be safe.

You can get more information from:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-08-25
Last reviewed: 2014-07-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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