What Is It?
Hepatitis (pronounced: hep-uh-tie-tiss) is a disease of the liver. It is usually caused by a virus, although it can also be caused by long-term overuse of alcohol or other toxins (poisons).
Although there are several different types of hepatitis, hepatitis B is a type that can move from one person to another through blood and other bodily fluids. It can be transmitted through sexual intercourse and through needles — such as those shared by intravenous drug or steroid users who have the virus, or tattoo needles that haven't been properly sterilized. A pregnant woman can also pass hepatitis B to her unborn baby.
What Are the Symptoms?
Someone with hepatitis B may have symptoms similar to those caused by other viral infections, such as the flu — for example, tiredness, nausea, loss of appetite, mild fever, and vomiting — as well as abdominal pain or pain underneath the right ribcage where the liver is.
Hepatitis B can also cause jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, and may cause the urine to appear brownish.
However, many people infected with hepatitis B do not have any symptoms until later on, when more serious complications, such as liver damage, can occur.
How Long Until Symptoms Appear?
Someone who has been exposed to hepatitis B may have symptoms 2 to 5 months later. Some people with hepatitis B don't notice symptoms until they become quite severe. Some have few or no symptoms, but even someone who doesn't notice any symptoms can still transmit the disease to others, and can still develop complications later in life. Some people carry the virus in their bodies and are contagious for the rest of their lives.
What Can Happen?
Hepatitis B can be very dangerous to a person's health, leading to liver damage and an increased risk of liver cancer. Of babies born to women who have the hepatitis B virus, 90% will have the virus unless they receive a special immune injection and the first dose of hepatitis B vaccine at birth.
How Is It Prevented?
Because hepatitis B can easily be transmitted through blood and most body fluids, it can be prevented by:
- abstaining from sex (not having oral, vaginal, or anal sex)
- always using latex condoms for all types of sexual intercourse
- avoiding contact with an infected person's blood
- not using intravenous drugs or sharing any drug paraphernalia
- not sharing things like toothbrushes or razors
Tattoo parlors sometimes reuse needles without properly sterilizing them, so be sure to research and choose tattoo and piercing providers carefully.
To help prevent the spread of hepatitis B, health care professionals wear gloves at all times when in contact with blood or body fluids, and are usually required to be immunized against the hepatitis B virus.
There is an immunization (vaccine) against hepatitis B, which is recommended for all kids and teens. The immunization is given as a series of three shots over a 6-month period. Newborn babies in the United States now routinely receive this immunization series. Teens who see their health care provider for yearly exams are also likely to be given the hepatitis B immunization if they haven't had it before. Immunization programs have been responsible for a significant drop in the number of cases of hepatitis B over the past 20 years.
Sometimes, if someone has been recently exposed to the hepatitis B virus, a doctor may recommend the vaccine and/or a shot of immune globulin containing antibodies against the virus to try to prevent the person from coming down with the disease. For this reason, it's especially important to see a doctor quickly after any possible exposure to the virus.
How Is It Treated?
If you think you may have hepatitis B or if you have been intimate with someone who may have hepatitis B, you need to see your doctor or gynecologist, who will do blood tests. Anyone who has had sex should be routinely tested for other STDs as well. Let the doctor know the best way to reach you confidentially with any test results.
If your doctor diagnoses hepatitis B, you may get medicines to help fight it. Sometimes, people need to be hospitalized for a little while if they are too sick to eat or drink. Most people with hepatitis B feel better within 6 months. Those who develop long-term hepatitis B will need to be followed closely.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: August 2010