Hepatitis B is irritation and swelling (inflammation) of the liver due to infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV).
You can catch hepatitis B infection through contact with the blood or body fluids (semen, vaginal fluids, and saliva) of a person who has the virus.
Exposure may occur:
People who may be at risk for hepatitis B are those who:
All blood used for blood transfusions is screened, so the chance of getting the virus in this way is very small.
After you first become infected with the HBV:
Symptoms of hepatitis B may not appear for up to 6 months after the time of infection. Early symptoms include:
Symptoms will go away in a few weeks to months if your body is able to fight off the infection. Some people never get rid of the HBV. This is called chronic hepatitis B.
People with chronic hepatitis may not have symptoms and may not know they are infected. Over time, they may develop symptoms of liver damage and cirrhosis of the liver.
You can spread the HBV to other people, even if you have no symptoms.
A series of blood tests, called the hepatitis viral panel, is done for suspected hepatitis. It can help detect:
The following tests are done to look for liver damage if you have chronic hepatitis B:
You will also have a test to measure the level of HBV in your blood (viral load). This lets your health care provider know how your treatment is working.
People at higher risk for hepatitis should be screened with a blood test. This may be needed even when they have no symptoms. Factors that lead to increased risk include:
Acute hepatitis, unless severe, needs no treatment. Liver and other body functions are watched using blood tests. You should get plenty of bed rest, drink plenty of fluids, and eat healthy foods.
Some people with chronic hepatitis may be treated with antiviral drugs. These medicines can decrease or remove hepatitis B from the blood. One of the medicines is an injection called interferon. They also help to reduce the risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer.
It is not always clear which people with chronic hepatitis B should receive drug therapy and when it should be started. You are more likely to receive these medicines if:
For these medicines to work best, you need to take them as instructed by your provider. Ask what side effects you can expect and what to do if you have them. Not everybody who needs to take these medicines responds well.
If you develop liver failure, you may be considered for a liver transplant. A liver transplant is the only cure in some cases of liver failure.
Other steps you can take:
Severe liver damage or cirrhosis can be caused by hepatitis B.
More information and support for people with HBV condition and their families can be found by joining a support group. Ask your provider about liver disease resources and support groups in your area.
The acute illness most often goes away after 2 to 3 weeks. The liver most often returns to normal within 4 to 6 months in most people.
Almost all newborns and about one half of children who get hepatitis B develop the chronic condition. Very few adults who get the virus develop chronic hepatitis B.
There is a much higher rate of liver cancer in people who have chronic hepatitis B.
Call your provider if:
Children and people at high risk for hepatitis B should get the hepatitis B vaccine.
The hepatitis B vaccine or a hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) shot may help prevent infection if you receive it within 24 hours of contact with the virus.
Measures to avoid contact with blood and body fluids can help prevent the spread of hepatitis B from person-to-person.
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Reviewed By: Michael M. Phillips, MD, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.