Hepatitis B lowdown

Dear Alice,

Just wondering what you could tell me about Hepatitis B. My mother was just recently diagnosed with it, so I'd like some more information about what it is, what it does, who gets it, and the like.

— Curious

Dear Curious, 

Arming yourself with knowledge about Hepatitis is a great way to help your mother cope with her illness and prevent the spread to others. Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and causes liver cell damage as well as inflammation of the liver. Acute hepatitis most often presents with no symptoms at all or very mild sickness. In rare cases symptoms become so severe that the person needs to be hospitalized. Acute cases typically last less than six months. Each year, about five percent of Hepatitis B infections in the United States (US) become chronic, which means that an individual continues to be contagious and risks developing cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. Often individuals infected with Hepatitis B won’t initially show any symptoms or experience mild flu-like symptoms such as fever, aches, loss of appetite, fatigue. As the disease progresses, many people develop temporary jaundice (yellowing of the skin) and dark urine. 

Hepatitis B transmission occurs when the blood or body fluids of an infected individual come into contact with breaks in the skin or mucous membranes of an uninfected individual. Hepatitis B is primarily transmitted through sexual contact, needle sharing, and blood transfusions. In some areas of the world, Hepatitis B is endemic and may be transmitted from mothers to their newborns, who become chronic asymptomatic carriers. If you were born in a high-risk area, you may want to consider seeing a health care provider, who can determine whether you are a Hepatitis B carrier. 

Though highly contagious, Hepatitis B is preventable. There’s a vaccine for Hepatitis B that’s administered either in three injections over six months or two injections over a one month period. Additional precautions include practicing safer sex and avoiding unsterile needles (for drugs, tattoos, or medical procedures). It's strongly recommended that individuals who have had close personal contact with an infected individual be screened and vaccinated. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), medication isn’t used to treat acute Hepatitis B, but health care providers may recommend rest, adequate nutrition and fluids, and in some cases, hospitalization. Individuals with chronic Hepatitis B are closely monitored for liver disease and may be prescribed medications that decrease the risk of liver damage and slow down the virus. For those with chronic Hep B, it's recommended that they avoid alcohol, as this could increase the risk of liver damage. 

You may want to consider speaking with a health care provider about screening for Hep B if you suspect you've been exposed. Following any bloodwork and antibody testing, a six-month immunization program can be undertaken if necessary. For more information about viral hepatitis and liver diseases, consider checking out the American Liver Foundation

With the appropriate care, your mother can hopefully lower her risk of developing liver problems and reduce her chances of transmitting HBV to others. 

Last updated Jul 28, 2023
Originally published Apr 18, 1994

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