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Hepatitis B

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by one of many hepatitis viruses. In British Columbia, the most common types are hepatitis A, B and C. Over 350 million people in the world carry the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and many do not know they have it.

Most adults get hepatitis B for a short time and then get better. This is called acute hepatitis B. Sometimes the hepatitis B virus causes a long-term infection. This is called chronic hepatitis B. Most adults clear the virus, but babies and young children are more likely to get chronic hepatitis B.

Causes

HBV is spread through contact with the blood and body fluids. You may get hepatitis B if you:

  • Have sex without using a condom with a person who has hepatitis B
  • Share toothbrushes, razors, nail files, or other items that have blood on them
  • Have tattoos, body-piercing, acupuncture or electrolysis with equipment that is not properly sterilized

Hepatitis B may be passed from mother to baby during birthing. Babies born to mothers with HBV are given immunglobulin and vaccinations soon after being born. Given the benefits of breastfeeding, a mother is usually encouraged to breastfeed, except when her nipples are cracked or bleeding.

You cannot get hepatitis B from casual contact such as hugging, kissing, sneezing, coughing, or sharing food or drinks.

Symptoms

Many people notice no symptoms when they have hepatitis B. If you do have symptoms, it may feel like you have the flu. As long as you have the virus, you can spread it to others whether you have symptoms or not.

Symptoms can appear an average of 60 to 90 days after a person comes into contact with HBV. Symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Mild fever
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite, nausea and sometimes vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Skin rash
  • Yellowish eyes and skin (jaundice) that usually appears  after other symptoms have started to go away

Most people with chronic (long-term) hepatitis B have no symptoms, but can still pass the virus to others.

Complications

  • In chronic carriers, liver scarring (cirrhosis) can occur over time
  • Chronic carriers with cirrhosis are at increased risk of liver cancer
  • In rare cases, acute hepatitis B can result in liver failure and death

Tests and Diagnosis

If you think that you may have hepatitis B, contact your local health unit or your family doctor for further information. A simple blood test can tell if you have the hepatitis B virus, if you had it in the past, or if you have had the vaccine to prevent the virus. Most tests are accurate four weeks after contact with hepatitis B.

Treatment

In most cases, hepatitis B goes away on its own. There is no specific treatment for acute (short-term) hepatitis B, but there are some things you can do that may help you feel better:

  • Rest and lower your activity level
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Try to control itching

Find out from your health care provider what medicines and herbal products to avoid in order to prevent further harm to your liver.

Most people with chronic hepatitis B can live active, full lives by taking good care of themselves and getting regular checkups. There are medicines for chronic hepatitis B, but they may not be right for everyone. The goal of treatment is to reduce the risk of serious complications, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.

There are several new therapies in development that are expected to improve the treatment of hepatitis B in the future. Talk with a health care provider that specializes in viral hepatitis about what treatment option may be best for you.

Prevention

The hepatitis B vaccine is the best prevention. The vaccine is free as part of routine immunizations for infants and children who are in grade 6 and who have not been given the vaccine before. The vaccine is also given to teenagers and adults who have a higher chance of getting hepatitis B because of medical conditions, occupation or lifestyle. A combination vaccine that protects against both hepatitis B and hepatitis A (HAV) is also available.

To avoid getting or spreading the virus to others:

  • Use a condom when you have sex
  • Do not share drug equipment such as syringes, needles and pipes
  • Wear latex or plastic gloves if you have to touch blood
  • Do not share toothbrushes or razors

Hepatitis B immune globulin is sometimes given when a person has been in contact with blood or body fluids of another person who has acute hepatitis B. See a health care provider as soon as possible if this happens.

All people who have hepatitis B should have the hepatitis A vaccine.

Resources

BC Centre for Disease Control – Hepatitis B
HealthLink BC – Hepatitis B Vaccine
CATIE.ca – Hepatitis B factsheet

 

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