‘Acute’ versus ‘Chronic’ Hepatitis B
Hepatitis B, a condition resulting from infection by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV), is a disease that affects the liver and that ranges in severity from “acute” – a mild illness lasting a few weeks or months – to “chronic” – a contagious, lifelong illness where the hepatitis B virus remains in a person’s body.
Acute hepatitis B infection occurs within the first six months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis B virus. This state may or may not lead to chronic hepatitis B infection. Symptoms of hepatitis B vary depending on whether the condition is acute or chronic.
Symptoms of Acute Hepatitis B
Although adults often develop symptoms of acute hepatitis B, young children under the age of five usually have no symptoms. Symptoms appear on average three months after exposure to HBV, but they can occur anywhere between six weeks to six months after exposure. Symptoms normally last only a few weeks, but in some people they can persist for as long as six months.
Symptoms of acute Hepatitis B, if they appear, can include:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Joint pain
- Jaundiced skin
Treatment for Acute Hepatitis B
Note that people who do not have any apparent symptoms of acute hepatitis B can still spread the virus. Currently there are no medications to treat acute hepatitis B. During this short-term infection, doctors recommend rest, fluids, and adequate nutrition. In extreme cases a person may require short-term hospitalization.
Symptoms of Chronic Hepatitis B
Most people with chronic hepatitis B are symptom-free for even two or three decades while carrying the virus, although some individuals experience ongoing symptoms similar to acute hepatitis B. However, about 25% of people with this chronic hepatitis B develop lifelong liver diseases such as cirrhosis and even liver cancer. Furthermore, they can spread the disease to others without anyone knowing it. (Once liver dysfunction begins, liver abnormalities will often show up in blood tests).
Symptom-Free Hepatitis B
Despite the fact that infected people may appear symptom free, chronic hepatitis B is a serious disease that can lead to early death resulting from related liver diseases.
If you suspect that you might have been infected with hepatitis B, there are specific blood tests your doctor can administer that look for the presence of antibodies or antigens to determine if you are infected or immune to the disease, or if you should be vaccinated.
People who are diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B should be monitored regularly by a doctor who specializes in this area. They should also avoid alcohol because it can cause further damage to the liver. It is also advised that they consult with a doctor before taking any prescription medications, over-the-counter treatments, or supplements since any of these can potentially damage the liver.
Hepatitis B Vaccine
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is by getting the hepatitis B vaccine. This vaccination is normally administered in a three-dose series given over a six-month period. It is recommended that babies from birth be vaccinated against hepatitis B, and that any child or adult who has not completed their hepatitis B vaccine series do so as soon as possible.