Initial infection with hepatitis B virus is called acute hepatitis B.
In some people, the body is able to clear the virus on its own. In
others, the virus persists and leads to chronic hepatitis B—a
lifelong disease. It is estimated that up to 1.4 million people in the
United States have chronic hepatitis B. The disease causes approximately
3000 deaths each year as a result of cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Most people with chronic hepatitis B do not have symptoms until
cirrhosis or late-stage liver disease develops. Symptoms may include
fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark
urine or clay-colored stool, joint pain, or jaundice.
Patients considered at high risk for having hepatitis B should be
screened. Specific blood tests are used to determine whether the virus
is present in the blood and whether the infection is acute or chronic.
Acute hepatitis B. There is no specific treatment for
acute hepatitis B. After diagnosis of acute infection, patients are
monitored closely and advised to rest, maintain a healthy diet, and get
plenty of fluids.
Chronic hepatitis B. After diagnosis of chronic
hepatitis B, patients are evaluated for the presence of liver disease
and other risk factors for liver damage. From that point, blood tests
are performed frequently to monitor how active the virus is. Ultrasound
evaluations are done semiannually to screen for liver cancer. At times,
a liver biopsy may be done to better understand the state of infection.
Patients with very active infection who are at risk for developing
cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer are treated with antiviral
medications, several of which are now available. Antiviral therapy is
highly effective at controlling chronic hepatitis B. While these
therapies rarely cure the infection, they keep the level of virus low
enough that the liver is no longer attacked. Many patients will need
long-term antiviral therapy.
A vaccine is available to prevent hepatitis B. Vaccination is
recommended for adults with risk factors for developing the infection
and consists of 3 shots given over 6 months. All shots are needed to
protect against the infection.
For more information, call 1.866.CALL.MLH.