Hepatitis B is a virus that attacks the liver, which can lead to scarring of the liver and potentially, liver cancer or liver failure. Unlike hepatitis C, there is a vaccine to prevent people from being infected and for those who receive it, the vaccine is 95% effective. Today, there are 400 million people worldwide who are chronically infected with this disease.
How Do You Become Infected?
The hepatitis B virus is spread through direct contact with infected blood as well as certain body fluids, such as semen or breast milk. Since there are more ways to become infected, hepatitis B is considered to be more infectious than hepatitis C.
The most common ways in which hepatitis B is spread is from mother to child at birth, from child to child, sexual contact, transfusion with infected blood or blood products and sharing drug injection equipment with an infected person.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?
Many people who are infected with hepatitis B experience no symptoms at all, making it common that many remain unaware of the disease until they happen to be screened (for example, when donating blood). Others do experience symptoms but mistake them as signs of a cold or flu.
The most common symptoms of hepatitis B include:
- anxiety or depression
- tenderness on the right side of the abdomen
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- muscle and joint pain
What happens after you become infected?
Like hepatitis C, not everyone who is infected with the hepatitis B virus will become chronically infected. Many will eliminate the virus without needing treatment within six months of being infected. Unfortunately, children are the most likely to develop chronic infection.
The virus can be diagnosed by a simple blood test. Physicians may also perform additional tests to determine the extent of liver damage.
How is hepatitis B treated?
In the first six months of infection, there is a great chance that your body will fight the infection on its own. Hence, early treatment is not necessary, because it does not increase the chances of a spontaneous cure. Early antiviral treatment may only be needed in very rare cases, where hepatitis B might cause an acute liver failure (less than 1%).
If hepatitis B becomes chronic (long-lasting), one should discuss treatment options with their doctor. Unfortunately, the available drugs do not usually cure hepatitis B. The aim of therapy is to keep the hepatitis B virus under control and to prevent liver damage such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. If the disease takes a mild course, treatment does not make it any better and it’s not necessary. However, if the disease is active, if the viral load is high and if there are signs of inflammation or liver damage, most people will need therapy.
There are several options to treat the disease. One option is to take an interferon-based therapy, either interferon alfa or pegylated interferon. These drugs stimulate the immune system. The other type of treatment is an anti-viral therapy with either Lamivudine, Adefovir, Entecavir, Telbivudine or Tenofovir. These drugs prevent the virus from replicating. The success of treatment depends upon the treatment used, the patient profile and the type of hepatitis B virus a person has.
The diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis B are complex. Also, many people confuse hepatitis B with hepatitis C. In order to make this easier to understand, we created a PDF presentation for patient advisors, which explains the basics of hepatitis B in simple words and cartoons. You can find the presentation here.
ELPA has also created a 2-page handout sheet that explains the most important hepatitis B markers, and what they mean: “Is someone infected, healthy, cured, or vaccinated?” While you should always ask your doctor what your test results mean, this sheet might give you some helpful additional information. You can download the hepatitis B handout here.