Hepatitis B

If you've been diagnosed with hepatitis B, you may worry about your health and about spreading the disease to others. Let's talk about hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B is irritation and swelling of the liver from infection with the hepatitis B virus. Infection can spread through contact with the blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and other body fluids of someone who already has the disease. Hepatitis B can also be passed to an infant during childbirth if the mother is infected.

Most of the damage from the virus happens because of how the body responds to the infection. When the body's immune system detects the infection, it sends out special cells to fight it off. These disease-fighting cells, in turn, can cause liver inflammation.

After you first become infected with the hepatitis B virus, you may have no symptoms at all. Or you may feel sick for a period of days or weeks, with some people becoming very ill. If you're body is able to fight off the infection, symptoms should go away within a few weeks to months.

Early symptoms may include loss of appetite, weakness, a low-grade fever, muscle and joint aches, nausea, vomiting, or maybe yellow skin.

Sometimes, your body can't get rid of the infection. If so, you have chronic (or long-term) hepatitis B. You may have few - or even no - symptoms at all. You may not even look sick. This is a problem, because people with chronic hepatitis B often do not know they're sick, and they can spread the virus to other people.

If your doctor thinks you have hepatitis B, you will need blood tests to confirm diagnosis. If your disease is acute (or short-term), you may not need treatment, other than occasional blood tests to check the health of your liver and other body functions. Your doctor will tell you to get plenty of bed rest, to drink plenty of fluids, and to eat healthy foods.

Some people with may have chronic hepatitis and need antiviral medications or another medicine, called peginterferon. These medicines can remove hepatitis B from your blood and reduce your risk of cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and reduce your risk of liver cancer. If you have severe chronic hepatitis B, you may eventually need a liver transplant.

If you have acute hepatitis B, you will probably get better. If your infection is chronic, however, you should avoid alcohol and check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medicines or herbal supplements. And you will need ongoing blood tests to monitor the health of your liver.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 10/15/2011
  • Alan Greene, MD, Author and Practicing Pediatrician; also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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