Hepatitis B


Hepatitis B is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis B virus. When first infected, a person can develop an “acute” infection, which can range in severity from a very mild illness with few or no symptoms to a serious condition requiring hospitalization. Acute hepatitis B refers to the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis B virus. Some people are able to fight the infection and clear the virus. For others, the infection remains and leads to a “chronic,” or lifelong, illness. Chronic hepatitis B refers to the illness that occurs when the hepatitis B virus remains in a person’s body. Over time, the infection can cause serious health problems.

Is it common?

Yes. Hepatitis B is very common worldwide. In the United States, approximately 1.2 million people have chronic hepatitis B. Most people with hepatitis B were infected with the virus at birth or during early childhood and developed a lifelong chronic infection. Many of those infected are unaware that they have hepatitis B, especially since they may not have symptoms. As a result, they can unknowingly spread the disease to others, including people they live with, sexual partners, and—for women—their newborns.

How is it spread?

Hepatitis B is usually spread when blood, semen, or other body fluids from a person infected with the hepatitis B virus enter the body of someone who is not infected. This can happen through sexual contact with an infected person or sharing needles, syringes, or other injection drug equipment. Hepatitis B can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby at birth.

Hepatitis B is not spread through breastfeeding, sharing eating utensils, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing. Unlike some forms of hepatitis, Hepatitis B is also not spread by contaminated food or water.

What are the symptoms?

Many people with chronic Hepatitis B do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected. Even though a person has no symptoms, the virus can still be detected in the blood. Symptoms of chronic hepatitis B can take up to 30 years to develop. Damage to the liver can silently occur during this time. When symptoms do appear, they can be a sign of advanced liver disease.

How serious is it?

Over time, approximately 15–25% of people with chronic hepatitis B develop serious liver problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. Every year, approximately 3,000 people in the United States and more than 600,000 people worldwide die from hepatitis B-related liver disease. In fact, 80% of liver cancer worldwide is caused by hepatitis B infection.

How is it diagnosed and treated?

Hepatitis B is diagnosed with specific blood tests that are not part of blood work typically done during regular physical exams. Those living with chronic hepatitis B should be evaluated for liver problems and monitored on a regular basis. Even though a person may not have symptoms or feel sick, damage to the liver can still occur. Several new treatments are available that can significantly improve health and delay or reverse the effects of liver disease.

Can it be prevented?

Yes. The best way to prevent hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated. For adults, the hepatitis B vaccine is given as a series of three shots over a period of 6 months. The entire series is needed for long-term protection. Booster doses are not currently recommended. To prevent mother-to-child transmission, infants born to infected mothers must receive a birth-dose of hepatitis B vaccine within 24 hours of birth, followed by three additional doses.