Hepatitis B

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is an infection in the liver caused by the hepatitis B virus. It is the most common contagious liver disease and is 100 times more contagious than HIV. Though not commonly thought of as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), hepatitis B is often spread through sexual activity. In the US, the hepatitis B vaccination is routinely given in infancy and vaccination is required for college students. 

Is it common?

The incidence of hepatitis B is highest in the 20 to 29-year-old age group. In the US, about 19,000 people get this infection each year and an estimated 850,000-2.2 million people who have been exposed to hepatitis B carry the virus in their bodies.

How is it transmitted?

Hepatitis B is transmitted by direct contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person. This includes semen, vaginal secretions, saliva, sweat, and urine. Transmission may occur through:

  • Vaginal, oral or anal sex

  • Kissing that involves an exchange of saliva, especially if there are small cuts inside the tongue or mouth

  • Exposure to blood through cuts, open sores, or mucous membranes

  • Sharing a razor, nail clippers, toothbrush, or pierced earrings of an infected person

  • Sharing needles or syringes

  • From an infected mother to a baby during childbirth.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms include:

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Lack of appetite

  • Dark-colored urine

  • Light-colored stools

  • Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes (jaundice)

  • Low-grade fever

  • Extreme fatigue

About 50% of people infected with hepatitis B do not know they are infected and can pass the virus on to others. 10% of people infected with hepatitis B become carriers of the virus. A carrier has the virus in their body the rest of their lives and can transmit the virus to other sexual partners, but doesn't necessarily develop any further health complications.

How soon after exposure to hepatitis will symptoms appear?

Symptoms usually occur within 2 to 6 weeks but may occur 1 to 6 months after exposure to the virus. 

How is it diagnosed?

Hepatitis B is diagnosed by a blood test. You can make an appointment to be tested at Health Services or you can contact another testing site in Providence. Click here to see a listing of local STI test sites. If you choose to get tested at Health Services, you can ask your medical provider about testing costs and when you can expect your results back during your appointment.

How is it treated?

There is no specific treatment or cure for hepatitis B, but the infection often goes away on its own. Rest and a diet high in protein and carbohydrates help the liver repair itself. Most hepatitis cases are acute, and the infection lasts from 1 to 6 months, during which time the person is continually infectious. During this period of infection, alcohol and medications metabolized by the liver must be avoided and sexual activity is not recommended in order to prevent transmission to partner(s). And although 90% to 95% of adults with hepatitis B recover completely, 5% to 10% develop chronic cases of hepatitis B. This means that the infected person continues to be highly contagious. Alpha interferon and lamivudine are two drugs licensed for the treatment of persons with chronic hepatitis B. These drugs are effective in up to 40% of patients, however, approximately 15 to 25% of chronic cases develop severe liver disease and death.

Caregivers must also protect themselves from direct, ungloved contact with blood and other body fluids of infected individuals. If your sex partner or a member of your household is found to have hepatitis B, you should consult your medical provider to be vaccinated.

Can it be prevented?

Hepatitis B can be prevented by a vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now recommends vaccination for all newborns in order to prevent hepatitis B infection later in life. The vaccine is also recommended for medical providers and anyone that is in close contact with infected individuals. The vaccine consists of three shots and is usually given at 0, 1, and 6 months. The vaccine is highly effective and should be strongly considered. College students are required to have Hepatitis B vaccination. Brown students can receive the vaccine series at Health Services if they have not been previously vaccinated.

Can hepatitis B infections be dangerous?

Hepatitis B is a serious condition that can cause lifelong infection, cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, liver cancer, liver failure, and death. 

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