Hepatitis B is a viral hepatitis that affects the liver and is caused by the hepatitis B virus, or HBV. The liver is an organ found on the right side of our belly (abdomen) under the rib cage. It cleans our blood of toxins, poisons, and bacteria. It produces bile which helps our body breakdown food. Hepatitis B occurs when HBV causes a person’s immune system to attack the liver. Symptoms may be mild to severe and may include nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin). Usually the body is able to fight the infection within 6 months (acute infection). Chronic HBV infections may lead to liver cancer, permanent scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), or liver failure. It is rare for HBV to become chronic in adults, but 80% of infected newborns and 20% of infected children under 5 develop a chronic infection. HBV is spread from person to person through blood, semen or other body fluids. The most common ways to get infected by HBV are through sexual contact with someone who has HBV, sharing of infected needles (usually during IV drug use), accidental needle sticks to health care workers working with patients who have HBV, and mother to child during childbirth if the mother has HBV.
A vaccine is available to prevent HBV infection. The vaccine may even be given to newborns exposed to HBV during childbirth to successfully prevent infection. It is important to call your physician within 12 hours if you know you have been exposed to HBV and are not vaccinated. There are treatments available to decrease your chance of becoming infected. If the condition becomes chronic, there are medications available to help slow the damage to the liver but there is no cure at this time. HBV infections are diagnosed through blood tests and possibly liver biopsies. Talk with your doctor if you or a family member has been diagnosed with hepatitis B. Support groups are also good resources of support and information.