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Hepatitis B

This information is provided by the North Dakota Department of Health. It is not a substitute for advice from your doctor. 

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B (formerly called serum hepatitis) is caused by a virus. The hepatitis B virus affects the liver.

Who gets hepatitis B?

Anyone can get hepatitis B, but those at greater risk include drug users who share needles, certain health care workers who have contact with infected blood, homosexual males (particularly those with multiple partners), persons who are in centers for the developmentally disabled, hemodialysis patients, and certain household contacts of an infected person. 

How is the hepatitis B virus spread?

Hepatitis B virus can be found in the blood and, to a lesser extent, saliva, semen and other body fluids of an infected person. It is spread by direct contact with infected body fluids, usually by needle stick injury, sharing needles, or sexual contact. Other possible methods of exposure include open sores, biting, or sharing of personal items such as razors or toothbrushes. Hepatitis B virus is not spread by casual contact or by respiratory droplets. At birth, the disease can be spread from mother to baby. 

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

The symptoms of hepatitis B include fatigue, poor appetite, fever, abdominal pain, vomiting and occasionally joint pain, hives or rash. Urine may become darker in color, and jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes) may appear. Some people experience few or no symptoms. 

Chronic carriers are at increased risk of cirrhosis and cancer of the liver.

How soon after exposure do symptoms appear?

The symptoms may appear two weeks to nine months after exposure, but usually within 45 to 180 days, with an average of 60 to 90 days.

When and for how long is a person able to spread the virus?

The virus can be found in blood and other body fluids several weeks before symptoms appear and generally persists for several months afterward. Approximately 10 percent of infected people may become long-term carriers of the virus and may remain contagious.

Does past infection with hepatitis B make a person immune?

Most people recover from hepatitis B after a few months. They clear the infection from their bodies and become immune.

What complication can result from hepatitis B?

Some people become carriers.  They can carry the virus in their bodies for years or for life. A hepatitis B carrier usually does not feel sick but can pass the infection on to others.  Later in life, a carrier can become sick. Hepatitis B can lead to liver disease, cirrhosis, or cancer of the liver.

What is the treatment for hepatitis B?

There are no special medicines or antibiotics that can be used to treat a person with Hepatitis B.  Experimental therapy may be used.

What can be done to prevent the spread of hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B carriers should follow good hygienic practices to ensure that close contacts are not directly contaminated by their blood or other body fluids. Infected persons (cases and carriers) must not share razors, toothbrushes, needles or any other object that may have become contaminated with blood.  Use of latex condoms during sexual activity may reduce transmission of hepatitis B virus among homosexuals and heterosexuals. In addition, susceptible household members, particularly sexual partners, should be immunized with hepatitis B vaccine. Infected people must not donate blood and should inform their dental and medical care providers so that proper precautions can be followed.  Experts discourage the practice of tattooing and suggest enforcing strict sanitary practices in tattoo parlors.

A vaccine to prevent hepatitis B has been available for several years. It is safe, effective and recommended for all infants and youth.  It is also recommended for adults in high-risk settings.  A special hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) is also available for people who are exposed to the virus.  If exposed to hepatitis B, consult a doctor or the local health department.