Hepatitis B

By:    Published: March 9, 2012

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Hepatitis B is just one of several types of hepatitis, an infection that affects the liver. It is considerably more serious than hepatitis A and affects thousands of people each year. Knowing the facts can help prevent the spread of hepatitis B.

What Is It?

Hepatitis B is a serious viral condition that causes inflammation of the liver and affects how well the liver functions. Unlike other types of hepatitis, it is a little bit harder to become infected with hepatitis B, but it is still one of the more widespread diseases in the world. Hepatitis B also differs from other types of hepatitis in that some people go on to have chronic hepatitis, which means that it never completely goes away, but rather goes into remission. Those who have chronic hepatitis B are at a much higher risk for developing cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer or needing a liver transplant.

The swelling and irritation associated with inflammation is the body's attempt to heal itself and it occurs whenever there is an injury or illness in the body. The inflammation of the liver can cause the liver not to work properly, which is of serious concern when consideration is given to the job that the liver performs every day. The liver is responsible for removing harmful substances from the blood, aiding in food digestion and storing nutrients in the body.

Hepatitis B is diagnosed with blood tests that look for immunoglobulin antibodies. The body produces these antibodies in response to the hepatitis B virus. Depending upon the results of the blood tests, the doctor can determine the type of hepatitis infection as well as how far it has progressed.

Hepatitis B is 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV according to the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are an estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million people currently living with a chronic hepatitis B infection in the United States. The CDC also estimates that between 4.3 and 5.6 percent of the population have had hepatitis B.

Causes And Risk Factors

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus. It is transmitted through contact with the blood, semen and other bodily fluids of an infected person. It is also transmitted from mother to child during birth. Because of this, all newborns in the U.S. usually receive the hepatitis B vaccine for newborns before leaving the hospital. Common routes of infection include:

  • Getting a tattoo or acupuncture with an unclean needle
  • Blood transfusions (though most blood products in the U.S. are tested for hepatitis B and other diseases)
  • Sexual contact with an infected person
  • Direct contact with blood in a health care setting
  • Shared needles during drug use
  • Sharing personal items such as toothbrushes or razors

Risk factors for contracting hepatitis B include:

  • Being born or having parents who were born in regions that have high infection rates
  • Being infected with HIV (those who have HIV are often infected with hepatitis B as well)
  • Being on hemodialysis
  • Having sex with multiple partners
  • Men having sex with other men

Hepatitis B cannot be transmitted through casual contact such as hugging, shaking hands or sitting in a chair after an infected person.

Symptoms

Many people with hepatitis B experience no symptoms at all, others experience very mild symptoms, while others still have very serious symptoms. Just because a person doesn't experience severe symptoms, doesn't mean that the condition isn't serious. Symptoms can include;

  • Fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes)
  • A longer than normal period of time for bleeding to stop
  • Swelling in the stomach or ankles
  • Dark urine
  • Pale or gray stool
  • Bruising
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea

Those who have hepatitis B can be sick with the above symptoms for several weeks or months or the hepatitis may be fulminant which means that it comes on suddenly and is quite severe, even life threatening.

Treatment

Treatment for hepatitis B is usually supportive, unless the hepatitis becomes chronic, meaning that it doesn't go away. If someone has chronic hepatitis they may need the help of antiviral medications. For those who don't have chronic hepatitis B, rest is recommended, as well as avoiding fatty food and substances that are toxic to the liver such as alcohol and acetaminophen (Tylenol).

In the case of chronic hepatitis B, antiviral medications can be used to help stop the damage to the liver that can result from chronic infection. If the damage to the liver becomes severe, a liver transplant may be required as a person cannot live without a functioning liver. But this is only done in extreme cases.

Prevention

Most cases of hepatitis B are completely preventable and there are a number of ways to help stop the spread. The hepatitis B vaccine is given to all newborns before leaving the hospital (unless their health dictates otherwise) in an effort to stop the spread of the disease, since vaccinating only those who were at risk did not prove to be effective. Adults can also get a different type of hepatitis B vaccine if they are at a higher risk for contracting the disease. Some of the things that people can do to prevent contracting or spreading hepatitis B include;

  • Avoid sexual contact with a person who is infected or use condoms and other safe sex practices
  • Don't share personal items such as toothbrushes and razors
  • Don't share needles or other drug paraphernalia
  • Clean up any blood or other bodily fluid spills with a solution of one part chlorine bleach mixed with 10 parts of warm water

Hepatitis B can be a serious condition, but with proper vaccinations and diligent preventative measures, the number of people who contract the disease each year will continue to decline.

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