Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver. About 35 people per year in Nebraska are reported as being ill with Hepatitis B. Your liver is essential to life and there are few effective treatments for life-threatening liver diseases except a liver transplant. Here's how your liver takes care of you:

  • It stores your body's iron, vitamins, and minerals.
  • It makes bile to digest your food.
  • It detoxifies poisonous chemicals in drugs, alcohol, illegal substances, and aerosol sprays.
  • It stores energy until you need it.
  • It manufactures new proteins.
  • It removes poisons from the air, exhaust, smoke and chemicals you breathe.

Who is at risk of Hepatitis B infection?
Anyone can get Hepatitis B, but those at greater risk include:

  • I.V. drug users who share needles;
  • health care workers who have contact with infected blood or body fluids;
  • homosexual men, especially those with multiple partners;
  • heterosexual men and women with multiple partners;
  • people who are in centers for the developmentally disabled;
  • hemodialysis patients; or
  • household contacts of an infected person.

How do you catch it?
You can get the Hepatitis B virus if you're exposed to an infected person's blood through cuts or breaks in the skin or through the mucous membranes. If you have close personal contact where you share items such as razors, toothbrushes, or needles for piercing ears or making tattoos, you may become infected. You don't have to be sexually active or an I.V. drug user to get it. Hepatitis B is often called a sexual disease because sexual exposure is one of the primary ways of passing the virus from one person to another.

What are the symptoms of Hepatitis B?
The symptoms of Hepatitis B include loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort, nausea and vomiting, joint pain or rash. Some people develop jaundice (yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin). Less than 10% of children and 30-50% of adults with Hepatitis B infection will have symptoms severe enough to seek medical help. The symptoms of Hepatitis B are indistinguishable from other types of Hepatitis (Hepatitis A, Hepatitis C, etc.). About 90% of infants infected at birth, 25-50% of children infected at 1-5 years, and 10% of adults infected will develop a chronic infection. People with chronic Hepatitis B infection are at risk for developing cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.

The incubation period can be anywhere between 45-180 days, with an average incubation period of 60-90 days.

How long is an infected person contagious?
The virus can be shed from several weeks before onset of symptoms to several months after recovery. People with chronic infection have varying degrees of infectivity. People who are e antigen (HBeAg) are considered to be highly infectious, while those who are e antibody (anti-HBe) are sparingly infectious.

What precautions should people infected with Hepatitis B take?
People infected with Hepatitis B should follow standard hygienic practices to ensure that close contacts are not directly contaminated by his or her blood or other body fluids. These practices include not sharing razors, toothbrushes, needles, or any other object that may have become contaminated with blood. Use of latex condoms may reduce transmission during sexual activity. Susceptible household contacts, particularly sexual partners, should be immunized with the Hepatitis B vaccine. Infected people should not donate blood.

How can Hepatitis B infection be prevented?
Infection with Hepatitis B can be prevented either before or after exposure to the virus. To prevent disease before exposure, the Hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for all infants and for people in high risk groups.

Hepatitis B is the only sexually transmitted disease that is vaccine preventable. The vaccine is safe and effective. You only need a series of three (3) shots over a period of six (6) months.

To prevent disease after exposure, Hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) is given along with the vaccine. Because infants whose mothers are infected with Hepatitis B are exposed during childbirth, all pregnant women should be screened for Hepatitis B. Infants of infectious mothers should receive HBIG and Hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of birth.

Is there a treatment for Hepatitis B?
Currently, there is no treatment for acute Hepatitis B infection. Alpha interferon and lamivudine (3TC) are licensed for the treatment of chronic hepatitis B infections. Other medications are under study and may be approved in the future.

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