Hepatitis B is infection of the liver with a virus. More than 1 million people in the United States are carriers of the virus. About 200,000 people get this disease each year. Certain racial and ethnic groups, including African Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, and Native Americans, have higher rates of infection.
About 90% of people recover completely in a few months. Others become carriers or chronically infected. Hepatitis B is a serious disease, and about 1% of people die during the acute stage.
The cause is the hepatitis B virus. The virus is passed to others by sexual contact with infected people and using nonsterile needles. Infected blood and other body fluids (e.g., semen, vaginal secretions, breast milk, tears, saliva, and fluid in open sores) can spread the virus. Infected mothers can give it to babies.
Not all people have symptoms. If they do occur they usually appear within 6 months from when the infection is acquired. First symptoms may be rashes, joint pains, fatigue, and other flu-like symptoms. Then, jaundice (yellow skin or whites of the eyes) may occur. Other symptoms are pale or clay-colored stools, dark urine, itching, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, low-grade fever, and pain in the abdomen (belly). Severe disease may lead to cirrhosis (liver scarring), fluid in the abdomen (ascites), and liver failure.
The health care provider will do an examination and blood test to show the presence of the virus in the blood (hepatitis B antigens) and the body’s response to the infection (hepatitis B antibodies). Liver function tests will also be abnormal.
No treatment exists for acute disease. Most people can receive care at home. Activity is as tolerated. Proper rest for 1 to 4 weeks after diagnosis is beneficial. During this time, intimate contact with other people should be avoided. The diet should be high in calories. People who come in contact with infected people and newborns of infected mothers should be given immune globulin plus hepatitis B vaccine within 2 weeks of exposure.
Medicine is given to those with persistent infection (chronic hepatitis B) to prevent more liver damage.
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