Hepatitis B

What Is Hepatitis?

"Hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver. Toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, heavy alcohol use, and bacterial and viral infections can all cause hepatitis. Hepatitis is also the name of a family of viral infections that affect the liver; the most common types are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.

What is the difference between Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C are diseases caused by three different viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms, they have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver differently. Hepatitis A appears only as an acute or newly occurring infection and does not become chronic. People with Hepatitis A usually improve without treatment. Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can also begin as acute infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. There are vaccines to prevent Hepatitis A and B; however, there is not one for Hepatitis C. If a person has had one type of viral hepatitis in the past, it is still possible to get the other types.

What Is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. It results from infection with the Hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis B can be either "acute" or "chronic."

What Causes Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by a virus. A virus is a germ that causes sickness. (For example, the flu is caused by a virus.) People can pass viruses to each other. The virus that causes hepatitis B is called the hepatitis B virus.

How is Hepatitis B spread?

Hepatitis B is spread when blood, semen, or other body fluid infected with the Hepatitis B virus enters the body of a person who is not infected. People can become infected with the virus during activities such as:

  • Birth (spread from an infected mother to her baby during birth)
  • Sex with an infected partner
  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment
  • Sharing items such as razors or toothbrushes with an infected person
  • Direct contact with the blood or open sores of an infected person
  • Exposure to blood from needlesticks or other sharp instruments

Can a person spread Hepatitis B and not know it?

Yes. Many people with chronic Hepatitis B virus infection do not know they are infected since they do not feel or look sick. However, they still can spread the virus to others and are at risk of serious health problems themselves.

Can Hepatitis B be spread through sex?

Yes. Among adults in the United States, Hepatitis B is most commonly spread through sexual contact and accounts for nearly two-thirds of acute Hepatitis B cases. In fact, Hepatitis B is 50-100 times more infectious than HIV and can be passed through the exchange of body fluids, such as semen, vaginal fluids, and blood.

Can Hepatitis B be spread through food?

Unlike Hepatitis A, it is not spread routinely through food or water. However, there have been instances in which Hepatitis B has been spread to babies when they have received food pre-chewed by an infected person.

What are ways Hepatitis B is not spread?

Hepatitis B virus is not spread by sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing.

Who is at risk for Hepatitis B?

Although anyone can get Hepatitis B, some people are at greater risk, such as those who:

  • Have sex with an infected person
  • Have multiple sex partners
  • Have a sexually transmitted disease
  • Are men who have sexual contact with other men
  • Inject drugs or share needles, syringes, or other drug equipment
  • Live with a person who has chronic Hepatitis B
  • Are infants born to infected mothers
  • Are exposed to blood on the job
  • Are hemodialysis patients
  • Travel to countries with moderate to high rates of Hepatitis B

If I think I have been exposed to the Hepatitis B virus, what should I do?

If you are concerned that you might have been exposed to the Hepatitis B virus, call your health professional or your health department. If a person who has been exposed to Hepatitis B virus gets the Hepatitis B vaccine and/or a shot called "HBIG" (Hepatitis B immune globulin) within 24 hours, Hepatitis B infection may be prevented.

Can Hepatitis B be prevented?

Yes. The best way to prevent Hepatitis B is by getting the Hepatitis B vaccine. The Hepatitis B vaccine is safe and effective and is usually given as 3-4 shots over a 6-month period.

Find More Information

Content source: Division of Viral Hepatitis and National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention

Reviewed by athealth on February 5, 2014.