Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Hepatitis B can become a chronic infection, which increases the risk of liver failure, cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Adults infected with hepatitis B usually make a full recovery while infants and children more often develop a chronic hepatitis B infection. There is no cure for hepatitis B but there are vaccines that can prevent the infection.
Acute vs. chronic hepatitis B
- Acute hepatitis B infection: This type of hepatitis B infection can be fought off by the body’s immune system and lasts less than 6 months. Most adults infected with hepatitis B have an acute infection but it can lead to a chronic one.
- Chronic hepatitis B infection: Chronic hepatitis B infection can result from the immune system’s inability to fight off an acute infection. A hepatitis B infection is considered chronic if it lasts longer than 6 months, but it can last a lifetime and lead to other illnesses such as cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Symptoms of hepatitis B include:
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Dark urine
- Weakness and fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
The symptoms usually appear about one to four months after being infected.
The hepatitis B virus is spread through blood, semen or other body fluids by:
- Sexual contact: Unprotected sex with an infected partner
- Needle sharing: Sharing needles containing contaminated blood
- Accidental needle sticks
- Mother to baby
Risk factors for hepatitis B include:
- Unprotected sex with an infected person
- Needle sharing during drug use
- Homosexual activities
- Living with a person suffering from chronic HBV infection
- Travelling to regions with high rates of HBV
- Being an infant born to an infected mother
- Being exposed to human blood at the workplace
A chronic HBV infection can lead to the following complications:
- Cirrhosis: The inflammation caused by the hepatitis B infection can lead to serious scarring of the liver and may impair the liver’s ability to function.
- Liver failure: In liver failure all functions of the liver are impaired, which requires a liver transplant in order for the patient to survive.
- Liver cancer
- Other conditions: Chronic hepatitis B can lead to kidney disease, anemia or inflammation of the blood vessels.
There is a vaccine available against HBV, which is administered in 3 to 4 doses over the period of 6 months.
Other ways to reduce the risk of HBV:
- Safe sex
- Quitting use of illegal drugs (intravenously)
- Extra caution regarding body piercing and tattoos
- Check vaccine requirements before travelling