Most illnesses make themselves apparent soon after you contact them. Whether it’s coughing and congestion from cold or nausea from the stomach flu, you usually know you are sick after you become ill. Sometimes, though, that isn’t the case. Hepatitis B, a virus that causes inflammation of the liver, often does not cause any symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose. Read on to find out everything you need to know about hepatitis B.
What Is Hepatitis B?
Like all types of hepatitis, which means “inflammation,” hepatitis B is a virus that infects the liver. The liver is a key part of many bodily functions, including blood clotting, food digestion, and filtering waste products and bacteria out of the body. Because it plays such a pivotal role, the health of your liver is of the utmost importance. Although hepatitis B can lead to more severe illnesses such as cirrhosis and liver cancer when untreated, it is preventable by vaccine. There is not yet a known cure for its more advanced stage. However, it is treatable with medications, so be sure to seek medical care if you think there is a chance you may have this illness.
Stages and Types of Hepatitis B
Hepatitis B has two main types: acute and chronic.
- Acute hepatitis B occurs after you have first come into contact with the virus, and if identified in time, will usually go away within a few months.
- Chronic hepatitis B is diagnosed when the virus persists for six months or more. It is a lifelong condition.
Age can play a significant part in whether hepatitis B will progress to the chronic form of the virus. 90% of babies and 50% of children five years old or younger who become infected with hepatitis B will wind up with chronic hepatitis B. In adults, however, the statistics are almost reversed, with only up to 10% developing a chronic infection.
Though it is very uncommon, some people who contract hepatitis B will develop fulminant hepatitis, which can lead to liver failure and requires immediate medical attention.
Symptoms and Causes
One of the most dangerous things about hepatitis B is that people who have it often do not exhibit any symptoms, particularly in the acute phase of the illness. Other times, when they do, they dismiss those symptoms as being part of a typical virus like the flu. They include:
- Muscle or joint pain
- Lack of appetite, nausea, and/or vomiting
- Dark-colored urine and/or pale stool
The hepatitis B virus is spread through bodily fluids such as blood or semen. You cannot become infected merely by having contact with someone who has hepatitis B. Some of the most common ways that you can contract the virus include:
- Having unprotected sex with someone who has hepatitis B
- Sharing needles or accidentally sticking yourself with a used needle
- Infants whose mothers have hepatitis B can become infected during childbirth
Because the virus can survive outside the body for up to a week, it is important to exercise caution even around dried blood, as it can still be infectious.
Prevention and Risks
The most effective way to avoid contracting hepatitis B is to receive the vaccine against it. The hepatitis B vaccine is known to be safe and is recommended for those who have the most significant risk of getting the virus. Infants and children are among the most vulnerable to chronic infection. Healthcare workers, intravenous drug users, and those in sexual relationships or living with anyone who has hepatitis B are also considered to be at risk.
Other ways to prevent exposure to hepatitis B are to practice safe sex and avoid sharing needles, medical equipment, or anything else that might involve contact with someone else’s blood.
If you have already had and been treated for hepatitis B, you cannot get it again.
Diagnosis and Tests
Hepatitis B is usually diagnosed with a blood test, which can provide an initial positive or negative result. A hepatitis B blood test can also be used monitor its progression or your recovery, if you need to be vaccinated or already have those antibodies, or if you are at risk for transmitting hepatitis B to others. Because hepatitis B is easily spread and often displays no symptoms or only common symptoms, it is essential to get tested if you think there is any chance you have come into contact with this virus.
For those with a chronic hepatitis B infection, it is likewise crucial to have the condition monitored, as it can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Imaging tests such as a CT scan or an ultrasound may be used to examine the health of your liver.
Treatment, Procedures, and Medication
Treatment for hepatitis B varies depending on whether you have an acute or chronic form of the virus. Those with acute hepatitis B may not need to receive a specific treatment at all. Instead, doctors will typically recommend getting plenty of rest and fluids and eating healthy foods until the virus goes away on its own. With more severe cases, a hospital stay for monitoring and/or an antiviral medication may be necessary to prevent damage to your liver, but that isn’t usually required with acute hepatitis B. A full recovery is generally expected.
Chronic hepatitis B, however, has no cure. Instead, there are antiviral medications to help manage it, which are taken orally. These medications can help minimize the risk of a more severe liver condition such as cirrhosis or liver cancer as well as prevent you from being able to pass hepatitis B to someone else. There are also injectable medications given on a more short-term basis, usually over the course of six months to a year. Once diagnosed and treated, most people with chronic hepatitis B will be able to live healthy lives.
In extreme cases, a liver transplant may be recommended.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
Much like with any virus, if you contract an acute case of hepatitis B, the best things you can do for your health are to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and eat a balanced diet, keeping the health of your liver in mind (see below). As well as seeking treatment and avoiding ways of spreading the illness, the same is likewise true for those with chronic hepatitis B, particularly since the advanced form of the virus has a greater risk of leading to permanent liver damage. Make sure you get regular check-ups to monitor the health of your liver and help avoid liver cancer or cirrhosis.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, and as such, it is key not to do anything that might contribute to that inflammation. Some of this can be accomplished by avoiding food and drinks that can increase inflammation. You should also steer clear of painkillers like acetaminophen, which can contribute to liver damage. Be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any vitamins or supplements, as some of them can also be harmful.
Food- and Nutrition-Based Approaches to Prevention and Management
Eating a diet with the health of your liver in mind is pivotal if you have hepatitis B, especially if your infection is a chronic one. Knowing what to eat and what not to can help your body stay healthy and delay or prevent liver damage. Hydration is also essential, so be sure to drink plenty of water. Some of the key foods to eating a healthy, balanced diet include:
- Lean protein, such as that found in egg whites, beans, chicken, and fish
- Healthy fats, like the ones in olive oil and avocados
- Whole grains
- Fruits and vegetables, especially root vegetables
While some fats are healthy, others are not. Trans and saturated fats can result in a fatty liver, which can, in turn, increase the risk of developing cirrhosis. Some of the foods to avoid include:
- Dairy products like butter and sour cream (low-fat or non-fat dairy is okay)
- Red meat
- Fried foods
- Anything high in sugar
- Anything high in sodium
Another important thing to avoid is alcohol, which can cause or further liver damage. If you are diagnosed with hepatitis B, you should stop drinking alcohol as soon as possible.
What Type of Doctors to See
If you think you have come into contact with or are displaying symptoms of hepatitis B, the first doctor to see is your primary care physician. They can order the blood test to diagnose you and help you form a plan going forward. If you do test positive for hepatitis B, particularly if you have a chronic infection, you will probably want to make an appointment with a hepatologist, a doctor who specializes in treating conditions of the liver. As chronic hepatitis B is a lifetime condition, they can prescribe you with any necessary medications and monitor the health of your liver and the progression of the illness. It is usually recommended to see your doctor once every six months to a year.
Though a diagnosis of hepatitis B can be daunting, particularly if you have chronic hepatitis B, the good news is that living with the condition is easy. See your doctor regularly, take any medications as prescribed, and eat a diet that will be beneficial for your liver. By doing these things, you should be able to live a long and healthy life.