Sexual Health: A Simple Guide to Hepatitis B
Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver that is caused by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). It is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) / sexually transmitted infection (STI), although it can also be transmitted without sexual contact. This infection may last for the lifetime of someone who is infected and may cause no symptoms until the liver is severely diseased. When the disease lasts from a few weeks up to six months, it is referred to as acute Hepatitis B. The body is often able to fight off the virus completely. When the body is unable to effectively fight off the virus, it can lead to chronic Hepatitis B. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 43,000 people in the United States are newly infected each year; far fewer cases are reported due to lack of symptoms. There are 800,000 to 1.4 million people infected in the United States; the rate of acute Hepatitis B has declined by 82% since 1990, in large part because of increased vaccination.
How Do You Get Hepatitis B?
The Hepatitis B virus is spread from person to person through the exchange of body fluids. This means that a person’s body fluid must come in contact with an infected person’s body fluid to be at risk of contracting the illness. This can happen through unprotected sexual contact, such as vaginal, anal, and oral sex. The disease can also be transmitted by sharing drug paraphernalia such as needles, accidental needle sticks for health workers, and from an infected mother to her unborn baby.
Around 66% of new infections are caused by sexual contact with an infected partner. Contrary to urban legend, the HBV virus cannot be spread through eating utensils, food, kissing, or sneezing.
Who Is Most at Risk for Getting Hepatitis B?
Although transmission from person to person is made through contact with an infected person’s body fluids, there are risk factors that increase the chance of sharing of body fluids with an infected person. Those are higher risk include:
- Those who have unprotected sex with an infected partner or multiple partners
- Men who have sex with men
- Those already infected with another sexually transmitted diseases
- Those who share living quarters with infected individuals
- Individuals who inject drugs
- Infants with infected mothers
Over time, an acute Hepatitis B infection can become a chronic infection. Infants and children under five have the highest risk of developing chronic Hepatitis B – 90% of infected infants, 25-50% of infected children ages 1-5, and 6-10% of infected individuals over the age of 5 will develop a chronic infection.
What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis B Infection?
Symptoms of Hepatitis B infection do not appear immediately after infection and can take up to six months to appear. On average, an infected person will begin to have symptoms about three months after exposure to the virus. Almost 70% of adults show symptoms, while many children under the age of 5 do not.
Symptoms may include:
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Dark urine
- Abdominal pain
When symptoms are experienced, they typically last for a few weeks but may linger for as long as six months. Chronic hepatitis B may or may not have symptoms; symptoms typically include chronic inflammation of the liver.
Who Should Get Tested for Hepatitis B?
You should get tested if you believe that you may have been exposed to hepatitis B infection or are showing symptoms of acute Hepatitis B. If you have been exposed to the virus and receive a Hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) within 24 hours, you may not become infected.
Additionally, high risk individuals and those experiencing liver problems should get tested.
How Is It Treated? Can It Be Cured?
Acute Hepatitis B is often overcome by the body’s natural defenses; there is no medication available to treat an acute infection. For individuals with acute Hepatitis B, most doctors will recommend adequate rest, good nutrition, and plenty of fluids, though sometimes hospitalization is necessary.
Chronic Hepatitis B cannot be cured, but liver damage may be minimized with treatment. There are medications that can be used to treat Hepatitis B, although this is not always necessary. Your health care provider will help determine the proper course of action and will monitor your condition going forward.
What Complications Can Arise if Left Untreated?
Left untreated, Hepatitis B can cause liver disease, liver damage, liver cancer or death. Everyone should be vaccinated for Hepatitis B, as this serious and potentially fatal disease can be prevented.