Hepatitis B is a viral infection that affects your liver. It is one of the most common types of liver infections, chronically affecting more than 400 million people worldwide. Caused by a virus belonging to the Hepadnaviridae family, hepatitis B can become life threatening if it develops into a chronic condition. In fact, chronic hepatitis B can lead to liver disease, cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure, and even death. Treatments are available for hepatitis B and infections are being curbed through the use of a vaccine now available in most countries.
How is Hepatitis B Transmitted?
Hepatitis B is transmitted through contact with infected blood or bodily fluids. Men and women can contract the disease through:
- unprotected vaginal and anal sex
- intravenous drug use (sharing infected needles)
- using infected needles for tattooing or body piercing
Hepatitis B can also be transmitted from mother to baby during labour and delivery.
Who’s At Risk For Hepatitis B?
Any man, woman, or child can contract hepatitis B, however, there are certain factors that will increase your chances of getting the disease. These risk factors include:
- having multiple sex partners
- engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse
- already having an STD, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea
- having existing tattoos or piercings
- working with blood and blood protects
- living in areas where hepatitis B is endemic (including Asia, Africa, and South America)
What are the Symptoms of Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is often known as the "silent disease" because so few sufferers experience symptoms of the disease. In fact, more than 69% of men and women who have hepatitis B never experience any symptoms associated with the illness. Unfortunately, this makes it even easier for those infected with hepatitis B to continue spreading the virus. Those who do experience hepatitis B symptoms often suffer from:
- loss of appetite
- muscle pain
- nausea and vomiting
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Complications of Hepatitis B
Hepatitis B is often associated with a number of serious health problems. Approximately 10% of adults with the virus, and up to 50% of children with the virus, become chronically infected. Chronic hepatitis B is characterized by persistent and ongoing symptoms which can lead to a number of health problems, including:
- liver damage
- cirrhosis of the liver (scarring)
- liver cancer
- liver failure
Unfortunately, the liver is one of the body’s most essential organs. Should the liver stop functioning for even a day or two, sufferers are likely to suffer life-threatening complications.
Hepatitis B and Pregnancy
Women who are pregnant and have hepatitis B could potentially pass the virus onto their child during childbirth. Because of their weakened immune systems, infants are much more likely to develop chronic hepatitis B infections, making liver damage a real possibility. It is important that all pregnant women undergo screening for the hepatitis B virus.
Screening should be done early in pregnancy and again your due date approaches. If you are pregnant and found to have hepatitis B, there are treatments that can be offered to help prevent you from passing the virus on to your baby.
Diagnosing Hepatitis B
The main method used to diagnose hepatitis B is a blood test, known as the Hepatitis B Surface Antigen test (HbsAg). This blood test determines the presence of the hepatitis B virus in the blood stream. In addition to this test, your health care provider may also perform other blood tests, including those looking for:
- elevated liver enzymes
- antibodies to the hepatitis B virus
Liver biopsies are sometimes performed in order to determine the extent of damage done to the liver.
Treatment for Hepatitis B
Unfortunately, there is no cure available for hepatitis B, however, there are a number or drugs that are being used to treat the disease. These drugs include:
- Interferon: Interferon is given through intramuscular injections, once a week, for 16 weeks. Interferon is produced naturally by your body to help fight off infections and invading organisms. This extra boost of interferon can help your body to fight off the hepatitis B virus more effectively.
- Lamivudine: This is an oral antiviral medication that stops the hepatitis B virus from replicating itself inside of your body.
Preventing Hepatitis B
It is important that everyone take steps to protect themselves against the hepatitis B virus. There is a vaccine against hepatitis B, which is available for everyone under the age of 18, and for those adults who are considered high risk. The vaccine consists of three different injections taken at specific time intervals. Your health care provider will be able to advise you about getting a hepatitis B vaccine.
Additional methods of prevention include:
- avoiding the use of intravenous drugs
- ensuring that all tattoo or piercing needles have been properly sanitized
- limiting your number of sex partners
- engaging in protected sexual activity at all times