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Hepatitis B Overview

On This Page:  What is Hep B? | Causes | Risk Factors | Prevention

What Is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is simply a term for when the liver becomes inflamed. Certain viral infections, drinking too much alcohol, being exposed to dangerous toxins, and some medications can cause hepatitis. When the liver is inflamed, it isn’t able to operate at its best level which can, in turn, affect the way the rest of the body operates.

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Hepatitis B is a serious liver infection that is manageable when caught in the first six months. It can be contracted through sexual activities, infected blood or sharing needles. Approximately 70% of cases are symptomless, so get tested if you may have been exposed.

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What Is Hepatitis B?

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a contagious viral infection that can cause liver scarring, failure, and cancer. It’s spread through contact with semen, vaginal fluids, and blood, which can happen during sex. According to the Hepatitis B Foundation, up to 80,000 Americans will become newly infected with hepatitis B each year.1

Hepatitis B can be potentially fatal, but most healthy adults fight off the infection in its acute (mild, early) stage and make a total recovery.

However, if hepatitis B lasts a long time, it can cause liver disease. 1 in 20 people infected with hepatitis B become carriers of a chronic (long-lasting) hepatitis B, which can be life-threatening. About 1 in 5 people with chronic hepatitis B die from it.

Acute Hepatitis B Infection

An acute hepatitis B infection is a short-term illness that runs its course within 6 months after exposure. The intensity of the infection can be mild with few or no symptoms (asymptomatic), or it can be very serious with the potential of requiring hospitalization, although this is rare.

Chronic Hepatitis B Infection

A chronic hepatitis B infection is diagnosed when HBV lasts longer than six months. If hepatitis B remains in the blood this long, it means the immune system was not able to clear the infection, putting the liver at high risk of serious complications.

It is highly recommended that people with a chronic HBV infection seek the care of a doctor to be monitored regularly for signs of liver disease and evaluated for possible treatment. If the chronic infection is not managed, over time it can cause liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death.

The chances that an acute infection may turn into a long-term chronic infection decrease with age.

How Is It Transmitted?

HBV may be transmitted when blood, semen, or another bodily fluid from an infected person with the virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. You can also get it by having unprotected sex with someone who has hepatitis B.

Risk Factors

All individuals who are not immune to HBV are at risk of acquiring hepatitis B. However, your chances increase if you:

  • Have unprotected sexual contact with multiple partners or with someone who is infected with HBV
  • Engage in anal sex or oral-anal contact
  • Live with someone who has a chronic HBV infection
  • Are an infant born to an infected mother
  • Have a job that exposes you to human blood
  • Travel to regions with high infection rates of HBV
  • Share items such as toothbrushes, razors, or medical equipment such as a glucose monitor with an infected person
  • Have direct contact with the blood or open sores of an infected person
  • Share needles or experience accidental needle sticks

Most pregnant women do not know whether they are infected with hepatitis B and can unknowingly pass the virus to their newborns during childbirth, putting the newborn at high risk.

According to the Hepatitis B Foundation, if they are infected with hepatitis B:

  • More than 90% of infants will develop chronic HBV
  • Up to 50% of children between 1 and 5 years will develop a chronic hepatitis B infection

If you are experiencing symptoms or find that you may have recently been exposed to hepatitis B, consider getting tested!

Can Hepatitis B Spread Through Sex?

Yes, in the United States, hepatitis B is most commonly spread through sex. In fact, this form of transmissions accounts for nearly two-thirds of acute hepatitis B cases! Also, hepatitis B is 50-100 times more infectious than HIV and can be passed through the exchange of body fluids, such as semen, vaginal fluids, and blood.3

Prevention

The number one way to prevent hepatitis B is by getting vaccinated for the virus prior to being exposed to it.  To lower your risk, practice safer sex by consistently using condoms or dental dams and don’t share needles. Being in a monogamous relationship with someone who is not infected with hepatitis B will also prevent infection. Also, talking about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) with your new partner before engaging in a sexual relationship is another way to prevent getting hepatitis B.

Other precautions you can take to avoid acquiring HBV are:

  • Don’t use illegal drugs
  • Be selective about who/where you go to do body piercing and tattooing
  • Ask about the hepatitis B vaccine before you travel

To learn more about testing, diagnoses, vaccination, and treatment for hepatitis B, check out our diagnosis and treatment page.

  1. “Acute vs. Chronic Infection.” Hepatitis B Foundation. https://www.hepb.org/what-is-hepatitis-b/what-is-hepb/acute-vs-chronic/
  2. “Hepatitis B Questions and Answer for the Public.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/bfaq.htm
  3. “Hepatitis B FAQs.” Immunization for Women. https://immunizationforwomen.org/providers/diseases-vaccines/hepatitis-b/faqs.php

Medically Reviewed by on February 13, 2019


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