What is hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is a virus that infects the liver. Most adults who get it have it for a short time and then get better. This is called acute hepatitis B.
Sometimes the virus causes a long-term infection, called chronic hepatitis B. Over time, it can damage your liver. Babies and young children infected with the virus are more likely to get chronic hepatitis B.
You can have hepatitis B and not know it. You may not have symptoms. If you do, they can make you feel like you have the flu. But as long as you have the virus, you can spread it to others.
What causes hepatitis B?
It’s caused by the hepatitis B virus. It is spread through contact with the blood and body fluids of an infected person.
You may get hepatitis B if you:
• Have sex with an infected person without using a condom.
• Share needles (used for injecting drugs) with an infected person.
• Get a tattoo or piercing with tools that weren’t sterilized.
• Share personal items like razors or toothbrushes with an infected person.
A mother who has the virus can pass it to her baby during delivery. Medical experts recommend that all pregnant women get tested for hepatitis B. If you have the virus, your baby can get shots to help prevent infection with the virus.
You cannot get hepatitis B from casual contact such as hugging, kissing, sneezing, coughing, or sharing food or drinks.
What are the symptoms?
Many people with hepatitis B don’t know they have it, because they don’t have symptoms. If you do have symptoms, you may just feel like you have the flu. Symptoms include:
• Feeling very tired.
• Mild fever.
• Not wanting to eat.
• Feeling sick to your stomach or vomiting.
• Belly pain.
• Tan-colored bowel movements (stools).
• Dark urine.
• Yellowish eyes and skin (jaundice). Jaundice usually appears only after other symptoms have started to go away.
Most people with chronic hepatitis B have no symptoms.
How is hepatitis B diagnosed?
A simple blood test can tell your doctor if you have the hepatitis B virus now or if you had it in the past. Your doctor also may be able to tell if you have had the vaccine to prevent the virus.
If your doctor thinks you may have liver damage from hepatitis B, he or she may use a needle to take a tiny sample of your liver for testing. This is called a liver biopsy.
How is it treated?
In most cases, hepatitis B goes away on its own. You can relieve your symptoms at home by resting, eating healthy foods, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding alcohol and drugs. Also, find out from your doctor what medicines and herbal products to avoid, because some can make liver damage caused by hepatitis B worse.
Treatment for chronic hepatitis B depends on whether your infection is getting worse and whether you have liver damage. Most people with chronic hepatitis B can live active, full lives by taking good care of themselves and getting regular checkups. There are medicines for chronic hepatitis B, but they may not be right for everyone. Work with your doctor to decide if medicine is right for you.
Sometimes, chronic hepatitis B can lead to severe liver damage. If this happens, you may need a liver transplant.
Can hepatitis B be prevented?
The hepatitis B vaccine is the best way to prevent infection. The vaccine is a series of 3 or 4 shots. Adults at risk and all babies, children, and teenagers should be vaccinated.
A combination vaccine (Twinrix) that protects against both hepatitis B and hepatitis A also is available.
To avoid getting or spreading the virus to others:
• Use a condom when you have sex.
• Don’t share needles.
• Wear latex or plastic gloves if you have to touch blood.
• Don’t share toothbrushes or razors.
• Don’t get a tattoo, or make sure that the needles used have been cleaned properly and are sterile.