What is Hepatitis?
‘Hepatitis’ means inflammation of the liver. A vital organ, the liver processes nutrients, filters blood and fights infections. If the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected. Heavy alcohol intake, toxins, some medications and certain medical conditions can cause hepatitis. Most often, however, hepatitis is caused by a virus.
What is Hepatitis B?
This is a serious liver disease resulting from infection with the Hepatitis B virus. Acute Hepatitis B refers to a short-term infection occurring within the first six months after a person is infected with the virus. The infection can range in severity from a mild illness with few or no symptoms to a serious condition requiring hospitalization. Some people, particularly adults, overcome or clear the virus without treatment. They then become immune and cannot get infected with Hepatitis B again.
Chronic Hepatitis B refers to a lifelong infection with the Hepatitis B virus. The likelihood of a person developing a chronic infection depends on the age at which s/he is infected. Up to 90% of infants infected with the Hepatitis B virus will develop a chronic infection. In contrast, only about 5% of adults will develop chronic Hepatitis B. Over time, chronic Hepatitis B can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death.
How is Hepatitis B spread?
This virus is spread when blood, semen, or other body fluids from an infected person enter the body of an uninfected individual. The virus can be spread through:
- Sex with an infected person: Among adults, Hepatitis B is often spread via sexual contact.
- Injection drug use:
- Sharing needles, syringes, and any other equipment to inject drugs with someone infected with Hepatitis B can spread the virus.
- Outbreaks: Though uncommon, poor infection control has resulted in outbreaks of Hepatitis B in healthcare settings.
- Birth: Hepatitis B can be passed from an infected mother to her baby at birth. Worldwide, most people with Hepatitis B were infected with the virus as infants.
Hepatitis B is not spread through breastfeeding, sharing food utensils, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing. Unlike some forms of hepatitis, Hepatitis B is also not spread by contaminated food or water.
What are the symptoms of Hepatitis B?
Many people with Hepatitis B have no symptoms and don’t know they are infected. If symptoms occur, they may include fever, a feeling of tiredness, lack of appetite, upset stomach, vomiting, dark urine, grey-coloured stool, joint pain, and yellow skin and eyes.
When do symptoms occur?
If symptoms occur with an acute infection, they usually appear within three months of exposure and can last up to six months. If symptoms occur with chronic Hepatitis B, they can take years to develop and be a sign of advanced liver disease.
How would one know if s/he has Hepatitis B?
The only way to know if you have Hepatitis B is by being tested. Blood tests can determine if a person has been infected and cleared the virus, or is currently infected, or has never been infected.
Who should get tested for Hepatitis B? Why?
People who should get tested include:
- All pregnant women should be routinely tested for Hepatitis B. If a woman has Hepatitis B, timely vaccination can help prevent the spread of the virus to her baby.
- Family members and sexual contacts of people with Hepatitis B are at risk. Those who have never had Hepatitis B can benefit from vaccination.
- People with specific medical conditions should be tested and get vaccinated, if required. This includes those with HIV infection, people receiving chemo and those on haemodialysis.
- Those injecting drugs are at increased risk for Hepatitis B but testing can identify the infected, or they could benefit from vaccination and prevent getting infected with the virus.
- Men having sex with men have higher rates of Hepatitis B. Testing can identify unknown infections or let a person know they can benefit from vaccination.
The results of the tests will help determine the next best steps for vaccination or medical care.
How is Hepatitis B treated?
For those with acute Hepatitis B, doctors usually recommend rest, adequate nutrition, fluids, and close medical monitoring. Some people may need to be hospitalized. People living with chronic Hepatitis B should be evaluated for liver problems and monitored regularly. Treatments are available to slow down or prevent the effects of liver disease.
Is Hepatitis B preventable?
Yes. The best way is by getting vaccinated. The Hepatitis B vaccine is typically given as a series of three shots over six months. The entire series is necessary for long-term protection.
Who should get vaccinated against Hepatitis B?
All infants should be routinely vaccinated for Hepatitis B at birth. The vaccine is also recommended for people living with someone infected with Hepatitis B, travellers to certain countries, as well as healthcare and public safety workers exposed to blood. People with high-risk sexual behaviours, men having sex with men, people injecting drugs, and those with certain medical conditions, including diabetes, should talk to their doctor about being vaccinated.