Hepatitis B (Serum Hepatitis)

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by a highly contagious virus that infects the liver. In the past, hepatitis B was called serum hepatitis.

Many people, especially children, have mild or no symptoms following infection with the virus. However, long-term infection can occur and may lead to liver disease, cancer or death.

People can develop acute hepatitis B or chronic hepatitis B infection:

  • Acute hepatitis B is a short-term illness that occurs within the first six months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis B virus. An acute infection can range in severity from a mild illness with few or no symptoms to a serious condition requiring hospitalization. Some people, especially adults, are able to clear the virus without treatment. People who clear the virus become immune and cannot get infected with the hepatitis B virus again. Acute infection can — but does not always — lead to chronic infection.
  • Chronic hepatitis B is a lifelong infection with the hepatitis B virus. Over time, chronic hepatitis B can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death.

Who gets hepatitis B?

Anyone can get hepatitis B. However, some people are at a greater risk of becoming infected. These include:

  • Infants born to infected mothers
  • People who inject drugs or share needles, syringes, or drug paraphernalia
  • Sex partners of people with hepatitis B
  • Men who have sexual contact with men
  • People who live with a person who has hepatitis B
  • Health care and public safety workers exposed to blood on the job
  • Hemodialysis patients

How is the virus spread?

Hepatitis B virus 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 from:

  • Birth from an infected mother to her baby (See the Perinatal Hepatitis B Prevention Program for more information)
  • Sex with an infected partner
  • Sharing needles, syringes, or drug preparation equipment
  • Sharing items such as toothbrushes, razors or medical equipment such as a glucose monitor with a person with the disease
  • Direct contact with the blood or open sores of a person with the disease
  • Exposure to blood from needlesticks or other sharp instruments of a person with the disease

Hepatitis B virus is not spread through food or water, sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, hand holding, coughing, or sneezing.

What are the symptoms?

About 30 percent to 50 percent of people over the age of 5 develop symptoms of acute hepatitis. Most children under the age of 5 and people who have serious health problems like immunosuppressed generally do not have symptoms.

Symptoms can include;

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored stools
  • Joint pains
  • Jaundice

How soon do the symptoms appear?

Symptoms develop slowly and may take as long as 90 days after exposure, but they can appear any time between eight weeks and five months after exposure.

What are the symptoms of chronic hepatitis B?

Most people with chronic hepatitis B don’t have any symptoms. They don’t feel sick and they can be symptom free for decades. When and if symptoms do appear, they are similar to the symptoms of acute hepatitis B infection but can be a sign of advanced liver disease.

About one in four people who become chronically infected when they are children and about 15 percent of people who become chronically infected after childhood will eventually die from serious liver conditions, such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer. Even as the liver becomes diseased, some people still do not have symptoms, although certain blood tests for liver function might begin to show some abnormalities.

How long can a person with the disease spread the virus?

  • A person with the disease can spread the virus for several weeks before symptoms appear and as long as the person is ill.
  • People who develop lifelong infection (“carriers”) may spread the virus for their entire lives.
  • Long-term infection may result in liver disease or cancer.

How is hepatitis B diagnosed?

A blood test is used to detect infection with the hepatitis B virus.

Can a person get hepatitis B again?

If a person develops hepatitis B antibodies, one infection with the hepatitis B virus protects against getting it again.

However, there are different types of viral hepatitis, and infection with hepatitis B will not protect against other types of hepatitis.

What is the treatment for hepatitis B?

There is no specific treatment for acute hepatitis B.

There is a vaccine for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

What can be done if a person is exposed to someone infected with hepatitis B?

  • When indicated, hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) should be given within two weeks after exposure.
  • Hepatitis B vaccine is also recommended for people at high risk of additional exposure.
  • For infants born to infected mothers, the combination of HBIG and vaccine is effective at preventing infection. (See the Perinatal Hepatitis B Prevention Program for more information.)

How can the spread of hepatitis B be stopped?

  • Vaccination is highly protective against the hepatitis B virus.
  • Testing all pregnant women with a test called Hepatitis B Surface Antigen ( HbsAg) is recommended to prevent spread from infected mothers to their infants. (See the Perinatal Hepatitis B Prevention Program for more information.)
  • Donated blood should be tested, and individuals who test positive should be rejected as donors.
  • Syringes, acupuncture, and tattooing needles should never be shared or reused.
  • Personal items such as toothbrushes and razors that could have blood on them should not be shared.
  • Latex condoms should be used regularly if there is more than one partner.

Is there a vaccine to prevent hepatitis B?

A vaccine is available and is recommended for all infants at birth as well as for people at high risk of being infected with hepatitis B.

The vaccine is safe for most people and the most common complaint is soreness at the injection site.

People who receive the vaccine as a precautionary measure may continue to donate blood.

Children in Nevada who attend public or private school must be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.

Where can I get more information?

Contact your doctor or the Southern Nevada Health District, Office of Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance at (702) 759-1300.

For additional information about hepatitis B, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Hepatitis B Questions and Answers for the Public webpage.

Contact Information

Phone: (702) 759-1306

Email: nursing@snhd.org

Updated on: May 8, 2019