What Is Hepatitis B and How Do You Get It?

What You Need to Know About Hepatitis B

Hepatitis is a viral infection capable of causing serious damage to a person’s health and overall well-being. Although hepatitis C is a widely known variation of the disease, other versions are problematic as well.

Hepatitis C infections outnumber hepatitis B, but with more than 3,200 new cases in 2016, the condition deserves more attention. With the right information, you can keep yourself and your loved ones safe from the dangers of hepatitis B.

What Is Hepatitis B?

The hepatitis B virus, or HBV, causes a range of infections in people who acquire the virus. People who come in contact with the virus can have either acute infections (one-time infections that last for a short duration), chronic infections (long-term infections that go away and return over time), or no reactions at all.

Children are especially susceptible to chronic infections with about 90 percent of infants and as many as 50 percent of children 5 and under developing chronic HBV infections after exposure. Only about 5 percent of healthy adults who contract HBV will encounter lasting problems associated with the virus.

Although neither infection is desirable, chronic infections are particularly troublesome. Chronic HBV infections result in hazardous liver conditions like cancer and cirrhosis. People with a chronic infection are more likely to die prematurely from problems linked to the virus than people without HBV.

Determining the number of people in the U.S. with hepatitis B is complicated, but the expected range is somewhere between 850,000 and 2.2 million people. There are an estimated 14,000 deaths due to HBV each year.

Hepatitis B Symptoms

The symptoms of HBV will vary based on factors like age and the health of the infected individual. In fact, many people will have no symptoms at all when the infection first occurs, which makes accessing appropriate treatment challenging.

The most common hepatitis B symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Low energy
  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Darker urine
  • Bowel movements orange in color
  • Pain in joints
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin

These symptoms last anywhere from several weeks to 6 months, which makes identifying the true source difficult. HBV symptoms may not present for 90 days after the initial exposure to the virus.

How Do You Get Hepatitis B?

HBV lives in bodily fluids like blood, semen, saliva, and mucus. Because of these multiple routes of infection, HBV spreads through various activities like:

  • Sex with an infected person
  • Sharing infected drug-related equipment like needles and syringes
  • Sharing household items like razors and toothbrushes
  • Unintentional contact with blood or open sores

In some cases, the infection is passed down from a mother to her baby.

One of the most troubling aspects of HBV is how long the virus can exist outside of the body. Even a virus that has been in the environment for a week remains capable of triggering a new infection, so a drop of dried blood on the counter from last week could be enough to spark long-term problems.

Due to this risk, extreme care is essential for anyone with HBV or anyone living with someone who has HBV. Be sure to clean and disinfect any contaminated areas with a bleach and water solution.

HBV will spread, but you don’t fear the condition too much. Regular contact and normal daily exchanges with someone who has HBV is not dangerous.

You cannot spread HBV through:

  • Sharing food or drinks
  • Exchanging forks or spoons
  • Breastfeeding a baby
  • Hugging
  • Kissing
  • Holding hands
  • Coughing or sneezing

Screening for Hepatitis B

Since many people will not have definitive symptoms related to their HBV, screenings are important tools to identify the infection in the body. People who should consider being tested for HBV include:

  • People with many sexual partners
  • People who use drugs intravenously
  • People with HIV
  • People living with someone who has HBV
  • Pregnant women
  • People in jails and prisons
  • People with compromised immune systems

You may think receiving an HBV screening is not needed, but you would be wrong. Getting tested can lead to other helpful services like:

  • Vaccination
  • Counseling to better manage the stress associated with HBV
  • Coordination of additional medical care

Hepatitis B Treatment

Unfortunately, for those experiencing the symptoms of an acute infection, no current treatments are available. Physicians allow HBV to run its course in the body and hope the condition does not become chronic.

People with chronic HBV infections should be monitored by a team of medical professionals several times a year. During these appointments, the treatment team will track liver functioning with blood tests or biopsies to understand the impact of HBV.

Some with HBV will receive antiviral medications at regular intervals or whenever their symptoms flare. The medicines help to suppress the virus and limit damage to the body.

Like many other infections, the best way to treat hepatitis B is never to get it in the first place. Practice prevention and safety in your day-to-day life to avoid the condition, and if you already have the virus, follow up with medical care to limit the toll HBV takes on your body.

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