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What is Hepatitis B?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2016
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Hepatitis B is one form of hepatitis infection. It is also called HBV, and it affects the liver with a virus called the hepatitis B virus. When people get this infection they may get one of two forms: acute or chronic. Of these, chronic HBV is the more dangerous type since there is no cure for it and it will generally result in severe liver damage, cancer of the liver, or complete failure of the organ.

Certain types of exposure to infected persons or the blood and fluids of infected persons are the most common means of hepatitis B transmission. It is most often passed from person to person by sharing infected needles, having unprotected sexual intercourse, or during childbirth when an infected mother passes the infection onto a child. When most adults get this disease, they get the acute form, which usually resolves within six months and may have symptoms like upset stomach, jaundiced (yellowing) skin and eyes, pain in the joints, fatigue, lack of appetite, stomach pain and dark-colored urine.

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Chronic forms of the condition are more dangerous and may have no symptoms until the liver has been damaged significantly, and since chronic forms are more likely to occur in children, HBV is exceptionally dangerous to them. For this reason, women who have engaged in any of the above risky behaviors need to be tested for hepatitis B while pregnant. Early measures taken right after a child is born may help prevent infection, including giving vaccinations and shots to the child. Fortunately, HBV is preventable in most cases with several vaccinations. In most developed countries it is now standard to offer HBV vaccinations as part of early well child care.

People who suspect HBV, pregnant or not, should see a doctor to get confirmation of diagnosis. It is exceptionally important to make certain that the disease is not passed on by continuing to engage in any high-risk behaviors. As previously stated, most adults with this condition do recover, and they may merely need rest and careful monitoring of the liver while the disease is in progress.

Treatment for chronic forms usually means taking medications that may help slow deterioration of the liver, but this is still typically not adequate in the long run. Some people with chronic HBV recover from the illness but retain the virus in their body and become carriers of HBV, but are in other respects healthy. Other people go into what is called a quiescent phase, where the main symptoms of the illness are gone, but they may experience flares over the years which can cause more liver damage. When liver failure does occur, liver transplant may be tried, but this option is not available to everyone.

The best bet in preventing spread of hepatitis B is to give vaccinations to children and to avoid the risky behaviors that may pass it. People who travel to certain parts of the world where HPV is at epidemic proportions, such as parts of Asia, may also require HBV booster shots or vaccinations before traveling. The virus is not particularly common in the US due to widespread vaccination efforts, clean needle programs, and education about safer sex practices.

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