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What is Hepatitis?

The liver is one of the organs that helps with digestion but is not part of the digestive tract. It is the largest organ in the body and carries out many important functions, such as making bile, changing food into energy, and cleaning alcohol and poisons from the blood.

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that sometimes causes permanent damage. It is caused by viruses, bacteria, certain medicines, or alcohol. It may also be caused by certain diseases such as: autoimmune diseases, metabolic diseases, and congenital (present at birth) abnormalities (biliary atresia, Wilson's disease). Generally, symptoms of hepatitis include fever, jaundice, and an enlarged liver. There are several types of hepatitis.

What is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a blood-borne microorganism transmitted by exposure to the hepatitis B virus through infectious body fluids. Hepatitis B is one of the most frequently reported, vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States. It is estimated that approximately 46,000 infections occur each year and an estimated 1.4 million people have chronic hepatitis B.

What are the Symptoms of Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B has a wide range of symptoms. It may be mild, without symptoms, or it may be chronic hepatitis. In some cases, hepatitis B can lead to liver failure and death. The following are the most common symptoms of hepatitis B: 

  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • vomiting
  • jaundice - yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • dark urine
  • clay colored or light stools
  • abdominal pain
  • occasionally, skin rashes, arthralgias (joint pain), and arthritis occur
  • enlarged liver
The symptoms of hepatitis B may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is Hepatitis B Transmitted?

Transmission of hepatitis B virus occurs through blood and body fluid exposure such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, or saliva. Infants may also develop the disease if they are born to a mother who has the virus. Infected children often spread the virus to other children if there is frequent contact or a child has many scrapes or cuts.

Who is at Risk for Hepatitis B?

One out of 20 people in the US will develop hepatitis B at some time during their lives. The following describe persons who are at risk for developing hepatitis B:

  • children born to mothers who have hepatitis B (the illness may present up to five years after the child is born)
  • children who are born to mothers who have immigrated from a country where hepatitis B is widespread such as southeast Asia and China
  • persons who live in long-term care facilities or who are disabled
  • persons who live in households where another member is infected with the virus
  • persons who have a blood-clotting disorder such as hemophilia
  • persons who require dialysis for kidney failure
  • persons who may participate in high-risk activities such as intravenous (IV) drug use and/or unprotected heterosexual or homosexual sexual contact
  • persons who have a job that involves contact with human blood
  • persons who received blood transfusions or blood products before the early 1990s
A vaccine for hepatitis B does exist and is now widely used for routine childhood immunization.

Prevention of Hepatitis B

A vaccine for the prevention of hepatitis B is available. Given in three shots over a period of time, the vaccine is suggested for everyone age 18 years and younger, as well as for adults over age 18 who are at risk for the infection.

How is Hepatitis B Diagnosed?

In addition to a complete physical examination and laboratory tests for blood and urine, diagnostic procedures for hepatitis B may involve a liver biopsy (a procedure performed to remove tissue or cells from the body for examination under a microscope).

Treatment for Hepatitis B

Specific treatment for hepatitis B will be determined by your physician based on:
  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference
Treatment may include biological therapy with interferon. Currently, there is no cure for hepatitis B. Prevention is crucial.