Understanding Hepatitis B, One of the Most Common Liver Infections in the World
About 350 million people worldwide, including more than a million Americans, have a liver disease known as hepatitis B, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people with hepatitis B are born with it. Some may never develop symptoms, but for others, hepatitis B can become a lifelong and even life-threatening illness. The symptoms can take up to 30 years to develop, at which time the liver has sustained serious damage. Infected persons can unknowingly spread the virus that causes hepatitis B to others, including people they live with and sexual partners.
Hepatitis B is a treatable disease, although it can lead to serious medical conditions – including cirrhosis (liver scarring), liver failure and even liver cancer. Tampa General Hospital’s Liver Disease and Hepatology Program has provided world-class care and successful outcomes to many patients experiencing the debilitating effects of liver disease, including hepatitis B. In fact, our extensive experience treating even highly complex cases has helped us achieve some of the best outcomes in the nation. If you or someone you know is seeking treatment for liver disease, you can turn with confidence to our caring team of liver disease specialists. Contact us today at 1-800-505-7769. In the meantime, here’s a brief overview of this condition.
What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis B?
For people who develop early signs of hepatitis B, symptoms can range from mild to severe and show up two weeks after infection or take a few months to appear. For many people who develop symptoms, the body’s immune system will clear the virus and allow them to fully recover. Common symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Joint pain
- Dark urine
- Unexplained fatigue
Typical Causes of Hepatitis B
The virus that causes hepatitis B is spread when infected blood, semen or other body fluids enter the body of someone who’s not infected. Some of the most common ways this occurs include having unprotected sex with someone who has the virus and sharing needles or IV drug paraphernalia with someone who’s infected. Moreover, women with hepatitis B can spread it to their babies during childbirth.
Who’s at Risk?
The risk of contracting hepatitis B is higher if you:
- Have unprotected sex with multiple partners
- Are a man who is sexually active with other men
- Share needles, syringes, toothbrushes or razors with other people who are infected
- Live with someone who has a chronic hepatitis B infection
- Are born to an infected mother
- Work in a field where you’re exposed to human blood
- Travel to places with high infection rates for the virus
Possible Complications of Hepatitis B
The inflammation caused by hepatitis B can lead to liver scarring, or cirrhosis, which can seriously impair liver function. People with chronic (long-term) hepatitis B may develop liver cancer or even liver failure that requires a liver transplant to keep them alive. Other potential complications include kidney disease and inflammation of the blood vessels.
Treating Hepatitis B
Doctors typically use blood tests to detect the presence of the hepatitis B virus in your body. If the virus is detected, your doctor may perform a biopsy or an ultrasound called transient elastography to check for liver damage. For people whose infection is acute – which means it’s expected to be short-lived and go away on its own – little treatment may be needed other than rest and proper fluid intake at home. For others, treatment may include:
- Antiviral medications
- Interferon injections
- Liver transplant
Can Hepatitis B Be Prevented?
The best protection against this illness is the hepatitis B vaccine, which is administered in three doses a few months apart and is available for infants, children and adults. If you know you’ve been exposed to the hepatitis B virus but aren’t sure whether you’ve been vaccinated, you can ask your doctor for an injection of immunoglobulin, a protein antibody produced by white blood cells, within 12 hours of exposure. However, this treatment will provide only short-term protection, so it’s advisable to also get the vaccine at the same time.
Other prevention methods include: using protection during sexual activity, avoiding illegal drug use (especially sharing needles) and making sure that sterile equipment is used if you get a tattoo or body piercing.
For more information about the hepatitis B treatment available at TGH’s Liver Disease and Hepatology Program, call 1-800-505-7769.