What is hepatitis B?

 

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Hepatitis B is a serious liver infection that is caused by a strain of the hepatitis virus. 

257 million people in the world are currently living with the hepatitis B infection. Each year, approximately 620,000 people die from the disease according to the World Health Organization

Hepatitis B is classified as a sexually transmitted infection due to the fact that it is commonly contracted through the transmission of infected bodily fluids. 

Before delving into hepatitis B, it’s important to talk about hepatitis at large. Most cases of hepatitis are caused by infection of hepatitis viruses A, B, C, D and E. Excessive alcohol and/or drug use may also contribute to a person’s risk of developing hepatitis. 

The majority of hepatitis cases are caused by hepatitis B and C, which are also known as HBV and HCV. 

In some hepatitis cases, the condition may clear up on its own. Chronic hepatitis cases may require more intensive treatment, and in the most severe cases, a liver transplant

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis is usually a short term illness for the majority of people, and will not become a chronic illness. However, the greater risk lies for infants who are diagnosed with hepatitis B.

“90% of infants with hepatitis B go on to develop chronic infection, whereas only 2%–6% of people who get hepatitis B as adults become chronically infected.”

For those living with chronic hepatitis B infection, there is a greater chance of developing long term liver issues, and other life threatening health conditions (such as kidney disease or inflammation of the blood vessels) as a result. Cirrhosis and liver cancer and disease  may be a consequence of chronic hepatitis B infection. 

Hepatitis may sound like a scary health condition, but luckily, it can easily be prevented by a vaccine. 

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What is the main cause of hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). 

To prevent the transmission of the hepatitis b virus, the World Health Organization recommends that all infants and children up to the age of 18 receive a vaccination. This helps to lower the risk of contracting hepatitis B in the wider community. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the following people should get vaccinated: 

  • All infants
  • All children and adolescents younger than 19 years of age who have not been vaccinated
  • People at risk for infection by sexual exposure
  • People whose sex partners have hepatitis B
  • Sexually active people who are not in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship (for example, people with more than one sex partner in the past 6 months)
  • People seeking evaluation or treatment for a sexually transmitted infection
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People at risk for infection by exposure to blood
  • People who inject drugs
  • People who live with someone who has hepatitis B
  • People who live or work in facilities for people with developmental disabilities
  • Health-care and public-safety workers at risk for exposure to blood or blood-contaminated body fluids on the job
  • People who receive hemodialysis
  • People with diabetes who are 19–59 years of age (people with diabetes who are age 60 or older should ask their health care professional).
  • International travellers to countries where hepatitis B is common
  • People with hepatitis C virus infection
  • People with chronic liver disease
  • People with HIV infection
  • People who are in jail or prison
  • All other people seeking protection from hepatitis B virus infection

How do you get hepatitis B?

In the simplest of terms, you can get hepatitis B when the bodily fluids of an infected person enter your body. With this in mind, here are some of the ways that you can get hepatitis B.

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Unprotected sex

If you have unprotected sex with an infected partner, you are at a greater risk of contracting hepatitis B. The hepatitis B virus can mass into your body from an infected person’s blood, semen, vaginal secretions or saliva. 

Mother to child 

Pregnant women who are infected with hepatitis B can pass the virus to the baby during child-birth. In most instances, newborn babies can get vaccinated as soon as they are born. You can schedule hepatitis B testing when you are pregnant to rule out your risk. 

Accidents 

Though the risk is very low, when accidents occur, it could lead to the transmission of hepatitis B, particularly in healthcare settings when/if a person comes into contact with infected blood. 

Sharing needles 

Hepatitis B can easily be spread through infected needles. Sharing needles, for whatever reason is a very risky behaviour as a number of sexually transmitted infections can be passed through shared needle use. 

Sharing of personal care items

Though the risk is relatively low, the CDC recommends covering all open cuts or wounds, not sharing razors, toothbrushes, nail care tools, or pierced earrings, especially if you are concerned that you have hepatitis B. 

What should I do if I think I have hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B, if left untreated can lead to very serious health conditions. If you know that you have been exposed to the virus, or you are concerned about symptoms of hepatitis, contact your doctor as soon as possible. 

If you have been exposed to the virus and you reach out to a healthcare professional within 24 hours, there is a better chance of being able to manage and control the virus in the earlier stages of infection. 

If you begin to experience symptoms, contact your doctor immediately to get tested.

FAQs

Is it safe to be around someone with hepatitis B?

If you understand the risks of hepatitis B transmission, it is safe to be around someone with hepatitis B. The most important thing to know is that there are associated risks, but if you understand those risks, you should feel perfectly safe around someone who has hepatitis. 

Here are some of precautions you can take to stay safe, summarised from the Mayo Clinic guidelines: 

  • Don’t have unprotected sex with anyone without knowing their sexual health status 
  • Use a condom every time you have sex
  • Don’t use or share needles for drug use
  • Be cautious if you are considering body piercing or tattoos, always ensure that safe health standards are in place
  • If you have not been vaccinated for hepatitis B, enquire with your doctor 
  • If you’re going abroad, and you know that hepatitis B is prevalent in the location where you’re travelling, ask your doctor about whether or not you should get vaccinated 

Can you get hepatitis B from kissing?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, hepatitis B is not spread through sneezing, coughing, hugging, or breastfeeding. Although the virus can be found in saliva, it is not believed to be spread through kissing or sharing utensils.

How long is hepatitis B contagious? 

Hepatitis B is contagious for as long as a person is infected with the virus. Someone who is living with hepatitis B is highly contagious, even when they are not experiencing symptoms. 

The symptoms of hepatitis can take up to three months to appear, and they can last anywhere between 2-12 weeks. It is hugely important that someone who has been infected with the virus gets treated as soon as possible to prevent further transmission. 

Can a vaccinated person get hepatitis B?

Once you get the hepatitis B vaccine, you are protected for life and do not need to worry about contracting the virus through any mode of transmission.

Written by Hannah Kingston on May 24, 2021

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