What is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is viral disease that affects the liver. It is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). While most patients recover fully, it can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. It occurs in certain populations in the United States, but is a much more widespread health issue worldwide. Experts estimate that about 1 million Americans are infected with HBV. In contrast, there are about 350 million people worldwide with hepatitis B, including nearly 700,000 yearly fatalities. International travelers may be at risk of contracting hepatitis B depending upon their immune status and their destinations.
How is hepatitis B transmitted?
Hepatitis B is transmitted from contaminated blood, semen and bodily fluids. This is why blood for transfusions or organs to be transplanted is carefully tested for the presence of HBV (and many other diseases) to protect the recipients. Hepatitis B is a sexually transmitted disease. Newborns can contract the virus if the mother has hepatitis B.
What are the symptoms?
Hepatitis B symptoms include fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and joint pains. A characteristic symptom is jaundice when the eyes and skin turn yellow. Jaundice develops gradually and is rarely noticed by the infected person himself. All of these symptoms are called non-specific, meaning that they can occur in many other diseases also. This disease is not nearly as contagious as hepatitis A, which spreads from person to person much more easily. HBV infected people can have silent infections and can still transmit the disease to others. Fortunately, most hepatitis B patients recover fully, but a minority never clear the infection and can develop chronic medical complications. After complete recovery, the individual is immune to hepatitis B infection for life. A minority of hepatitis B patients have progressive disease. Liver transplantation has been performed to save hepatitis B patients with liver failure whose survival is in jeopardy. There are also individuals who never clear the HBV, but yet they never develop any illness. These people are called hepatitis B carriers.
How is hepatitis B diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects that you have hepatitis B, then there are accurate blood tests available to establish the diagnosis.
Is treatment available?
Viral diseases generally are not treated with specific medications like antibiotics. Nearly all patients recover fully from hepatitis B, although the illness can last for months. After recovery, the individual is immune from future hepatitis B infection. There are special medications available for patients who do not clear the hepatitis B virus and develop liver disease.
Can hepatitis B be prevented?
Definitely. There is a safe and effective vaccine available that provides excellent protection. It is currently recommended to all infants in order to protect them from future infections of HBV. International travelers may be at risk and should discuss hepatitis B vaccination with their travel doctors. Ideally, this should occur months before departure, but even last minute vaccination can offer protection. Individuals can also reduce their risk by engaging only in safe sex practices and not sharing razors and toothbrushes with individuals known to be infected.