What is hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by infection with the hepatitis B virus. The word hepatitis actually means inflammation of the liver cells. The severity of infection can vary. Some people who acquire the hepatitis B virus will have no symptoms and become carriers of the infection. Prevention of infection and education about the disease are keys in controlling the spread of hepatitis B. Vaccinations are readily available for those at risk of contracting the virus.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?
Symptoms of hepatitis B infection may appear from anywhere between 1 and 6 months after the virus enters the body. The period before symptoms occur is called the incubation period. The first symptoms of hepatitis B include nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, mild fever, and occasionally, headaches. These symptoms may sometimes be mistaken for the flu. This stage of the disease is known as the prodromal period. After the prodromal period, jaundice develops. Jaundice is caused by a build-up of bilirubin; this substance is produced when red blood cells are broken down and is usually disposed of via the stools when the liver is working properly. If the liver begins to malfunction, the levels of bilirubin in the body rise, causing dark urine, pale stools and the characteristic yellowish discoloration of jaundice, affecting the whites of the eyes and, in severe cases, the skin.
The illness may last for a few weeks or continue for months. Recovery is usually complete within 6 months. Chronic hepatitis is when the infection lasts for longer than 6 months. In some people chronic hepatitis may lead eventually to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. Many people have no symptoms and do not know that they are infected. However, these people are still capable of spreading the virus to others and may become permanent carriers of the virus.
How is hepatitis B spread?
The hepatitis B virus is usually transmitted via infected bodily fluids, particularly blood and blood products. It is most often passed by sexual contact with an infected person, by needle sharing to inject drugs or by sharing personal items such as a razor. It is not passed by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with toilet seats. All blood and blood products are now tested so that transmission of the virus via a blood transfusion is not a risk.
Hepatitis B virus can also be passed from a mother to her child during the birth and via tattooing or acupuncture if proper precautions are not taken. Some groups of people are more at risk from accidental exposure to the virus, in particular healthcare workers, prison and police staff and care providers. Exposure can occur through injuries from used needles or if an infected person becomes violent and inflicts bites or wounds.