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What Causes Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus. This virus lives in the blood and other body fluids of infected individuals. It can be spread through unprotected sex and other means by which infected body fluids pass into the bodies of uninfected people. Babies can also be infected by their mothers with hepatitis B at childbirth. Unlike the hepatitis A virus, which can cause similar short-term symptoms, hepatitis B is not routinely caused by ingesting contaminated food or water. Although the hepatitis B virus can be present in saliva, experts say transmission does not occur through kissing, sharing utensils, sneezing or coughing. However, bite injuries can spread the disease.

How is Hepatitis B Transmitted?

One of the most common ways people become infected with hepatitis B is through unprotected sex. Hepatitis B can be present in both semen and vaginal secretions. Using condoms and dental dams can help lower the risk of hepatitis B infection during sexual activity.

There are many other ways that a person can be infected with the hepatitis B virus, including:

  • Having direct contact with infected blood or with blood-contaminated surfaces through open sores on the skin
  • Sharing drug injection equipment, such as needles and syringes
  • Being exposed to splashes of infected blood through scratches, abrasions, burns, skin rashes or mucous membranes in the mouth, nose or eyes
  • Receiving a tattoo or body piercing during which the technician used equipment contaminated with the virus

Infants are among those most at risk of contracting a serious, potentially fatal case of hepatitis B. In fact, an estimated 1 in 4 infected babies will develop liver failure or liver cancer as adults. Because babies can get hepatitis B from their infected mothers, it’s recommended that all babies be vaccinated against the virus.

Although many people who become infected with hepatitis B will recover without any permanent liver damage, some will develop serious and even life-threatening complications. If you or someone you care about is experiencing the debilitating effects of hepatitis B, the liver disease specialists at Tampa General Hospital’s Liver Disease and Hepatology Program may be able to help. Call 1-800-505-7769 for more information about our services.