Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) can cause serious and sometimes permanent damage to the liver, which can result in death in severe cases. One of the many types of hepatitis is caused by hepatitis B virus (HBV). Hepatitis B virus is somewhat similar to HIV, but it is much more contagious than HIV, and it can also be spread through nonsexual close contact.

HBV is found in all body fluids, including blood and blood products, semen, saliva, urine, and vaginal secretions. It is easily transmitted through any sexual activity that involves the exchange of body fluids, the use of contaminated needles, and any blood-to-blood contact, including the use of contaminated razor blades, toothbrushes, and eating utensils. The primary risk factors for acquiring hepatitis B are sexual exposure and injection drug use; having multiple partners greatly increases risk.

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Symptoms Many people infected with HBV never develop symptoms; they have what is known as a silent infection. The normal incubation period is 30-180 days. Mild cases of hepatitis cause flulike symptoms. As the illness progresses, there may be nausea, vomiting, dark-colored urine, abdominal pain, and jaundice.

People with hepatitis B sometimes recover completely, but they can also become chronic carriers of the virus, capable of infecting others for the rest of their lives. Some chronic carriers remain asymptomatic, while others develop chronic liver disease. Chronic hepatitis can cause cirrhosis, liver failure, and a deadly form of liver cancer. Hepatitis kills some 5000 Americans each year; worldwide, the annual death toll exceeds 600,000.

Diagnosis and Treatment Blood tests can diagnose hepatitis by analyzing liver function and detecting the infecting organism. There is no cure for HBV and no specific treatment for acute infections; antiviral drugs and immune system modulators may be used for chronic HBV infection. For people exposed to HBV, treatment with hepatitis B immunoglobulin can provide protection against the virus.

The vaccine for hepatitis B is safe and effective. Immunization is recommended for everyone under age 19 and for all adults at increased risk, including people who have more than one sex partner in six months, men who have sex with other men, those who inject illegal drugs, and health care workers who are exposed to blood and body fluids.

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