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Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Hepatitis B (HBV)

What Is It?

Hepatitis (pronounced: hep-uh-TIE-tiss) is a disease of the liver. It is usually caused by a virus, but also can be caused by long-term overuse of alcohol or other toxins (poisons).

There are several different types of hepatitis. Hepatitis B is a type that can move from one person to another through blood and other body fluids. People can also get it through having sex or from needles — like needles shared by drug or steroid users who have the virus, or tattoo needles that haven’t been properly sterilized. And a pregnant woman can pass hepatitis B to her unborn baby.

What Are the Symptoms?

Someone with hepatitis B may have symptoms similar to those caused by other viral infections, like the flu. The person may be extra tired, feel like throwing up or actually throw up, not feel like eating, or have a mild fever. Someone infected with hepatitis B may also have abdominal (belly) pain or pain underneath the right ribcage where the liver is.

Hepatitis B can also cause jaundice. Jaundice (pronounced: JAWN-diss) is a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. It may cause urine (pee) to appear brownish.

Many people infected with hepatitis B do not have any symptoms until later on. At that stage, a person can have more serious complications, such as liver damage.

How Long Until Symptoms Appear?

Someone who has been exposed to hepatitis B may have symptoms any time from 6 weeks to 6 months later. Some people with hepatitis B don’t notice symptoms until they become quite severe. Some have few or no symptoms, but even someone who doesn’t have any symptoms can still transmit the disease to others, and can still develop complications later in life.

Some people carry the virus in their bodies and are contagious for the rest of their lives.

What Can Happen?

Hepatitis B can be dangerous. It can lead to liver damage and an increased risk of liver cancer. If a pregnant women has the hepatitis B virus, her baby has a very high chance of having the virus unless the baby gets a special immune injection and the first dose of hepatitis B vaccine at birth.

How Is It Prevented?

Because people get hepatitis B through infected blood and other body fluids, these are ways to prevent it:

  • abstain from all kinds of sex (i.e., don’t have oral, vaginal, or anal sex)
  • always use latex condoms anytime you have oral, vaginal, or anal sex
  • avoid contact with an infected person’s blood
  • don’t use intravenous drugs or share needles or other drug tools
  • don’t share things like toothbrushes or razors
  • research tattoo and piercing places carefully to be sure they don’t reuse needles without properly sterilizing them

To help prevent the spread of hepatitis B, health care professionals wear gloves at all times when in contact with blood or body fluids. People who work in health care are usually immunized against the hepatitis B virus.

Doctors recommend that teens get a hepatitis B immunization (vaccine). It’s a series of three shots over a 6-month period. Newborn babies in the United States now routinely get this immunization. Thanks to immunization, there’s been a big drop in the number of cases of hepatitis B over the past 20 years.

If someone has been recently exposed to the hepatitis B virus, a doctor may recommend the vaccine and/or a shot of immune globulin containing antibodies against the virus to try to prevent the person from coming down with the disease. That’s why it’s very important to see a doctor immediately after any possible exposure to the virus.

How Is It Treated?

If you think you may have hepatitis B or you might have been exposed to the virus through sex or drug use, see your doctor or gynecologist to get tested (they can test you for other infections as well). Let the doctor know the best way to reach you confidentially with test results.

If your doctor finds you have hepatitis B, he or she will advise you on what to do to manage the symptoms — like getting plenty of rest or drinking fluids. Sometimes, people need to be hospitalized for a little while if they are too sick to eat or drink. Most people with hepatitis B feel better within 6 months, although those who develop long-term hepatitis B will be closely monitored by their doctor.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: October 2013