What is Hepatitis B?

The term “hepatitis” means inflammation (or swelling) of the liver. When the liver is inflamed, it can have a harder time filtering and detoxifying your blood.  Almost all the blood in your body passes through the liver where chemicals, poisons, and substances, such as prescription or over-the-counter drugs, street drugs, alcohol, and caffeine are broken down. A hepatitis virus is one that lives in liver cells and causes inflammation. Different hepatitis viruses have been given different names, such as A, B, and C.

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus. Most people who get hepatitis B as adults can get rid of the virus on their own. But others, especially children and some adults can develop chronic (or lifelong) hepatitis B that can lead to liver damage,liver cancer, and death.


Who is at risk?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that these groups are more likely to get hepatitis B:

  • Persons with multiple sex partners or diagnosis of a sexually transmitted disease
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Sex contacts of infected persons
  • Injection drug users
  • Household contacts of chronically infected persons
  • Infants born to infected mothers
  • Infants and children of immigrants from areas with high rates of hepatitis B, particularly Africa, Asia, Alaska, and parts of South America
  • Health care and public safety workers
  • Hemodialysis patients (or people who use a kidney machine)


Will you know if you have hepatitis B?

Not necessarily. You may have hepatitis B and not have any symptoms. You can still spread the virus to others even if you don’t have symptoms. Some people who do have symptoms might have the following:

  • Yellowing skin or eyes (or jaundice)
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Feeling tired
  • Muscle, joint, or stomach pain
  • Stomach upset, diarrhea, or vomiting


What tests will you have to do?

You can be tested for hepatitis B at your VA medical center. This test is done by taking a sample of your blood. Your doctor may ask you to do the following tests:

  • Hepatitis B surface antibody (Anti-HBs)
    If this test is positive, it means that

    • you have antibodies against hepatitis B and are safe from getting the disease
    • you were either vaccinated against hepatitis B or exposed to it at some point in your lifetime
  • Hepatitis B core antibody (Anti-HBc)
    If the test is positive, it means that

    • you have been exposed to hepatitis B and have developed an antibody to only part of the virus
    • they will do more tests to find out if you have the disease
  • Hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg)
    If this test is positive, it means that

    • you do have hepatitis B
    • you can spread the virus to others
  • Hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg)
    If this test is positive, it means that

    • you may have very active hepatitis B and should be followed closely by your doctor and possibly take hepatitis B medications
    • you may be very contagious to others


Are there treatments for hepatitis B?

There are multiple FDA-approved drugs and in use for the treatment of hepatitis B.
A doctor can determine if medicine is needed for you and which medication or combination of medications to use.


How can you protect yourself against hepatitis B?

High-risk behaviors are things that some people do that make them more likely to get a disease. You can get hepatitis B through contact with (or by touching) the blood of a person who has the disease. You can also get hepatitis B through contact with other body fluids like semen and vaginal fluids. For example, you can get hepatitis B by having sex or sharing needles with a person who has the disease.

  • Practice safer sex. Use condoms every time you have sex.
  • Don’t shoot drugs. If you are using drugs now, try to get help to stop. VA has programs to help you. If you cannot stop, then don’t share needles and works.
  • Don’t share personal care items like razors, toothbrushes, and nail clippers

If you can stop high-risk behaviors like these, it can also prevent you from getting other viruses like HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and hepatitis C virus. Please speak with your health care provider to get more information about these viruses.


Should you get the hepatitis B vaccine?

There is a vaccine that protects you from getting hepatitis B.  A vaccine is a shot of inactive virus that stimulates your natural immune system. The vaccine requires 3 shots over a 6 month period.  After you get the hepatitis B vaccine, your body will make antibodies that will protect you against the virus. These antibodies are stored in your body for years and will fight off the hepatitis B virus if you are exposed to it.
You may need the hepatitis B vaccine if you

  • have a chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis C;
  • live in or were born in areas where hepatitis B is common;
  • inject drugs;
  • have a sex partner who has hepatitis B or have multiple sex partners;
  • are a man who has sex with other men;
  • share a household with someone who has hepatitis B;
  • work in a high-risk profession, especially if you are a health care worker, emergency worker, police officer, firefighter, mortician, or work in the military;
  • are an international traveler;
  • are in prison
  • receive blood products or are on hemodialysis.

Certain ethnic groups have higher rates of Hepatitis B virus infection.  You may need the vaccine if you are African-American, Latino, Native American, Haitian, Alaskan Native, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean or Filipino.

If you already got vaccinated or if you are not sure, talk with your doctor (or health care provider). Your health care provider can check to see if you have antibodies against hepatitis B.


What should you do if you are exposed to the hepatitis B virus?

If you know you were recently exposed to the hepatitis B virus, you may get protection from a shot of hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG) within 24 hours after your exposure. This will protect you for three to six months, but it is also strongly recommended that you begin the three-shot hepatitis B vaccine series, starting within seven days of your exposure.


How is the Hepatitis B vaccine given?

For both children and adults, the vaccine should be given as three shots.
If you are not able to get the shots on time, the vaccine may still work if you get your second and third shots at least two months apart from each other. Ask your doctor for more information.

You will NOT get hepatitis B from the vaccine.
You will be protected for about 13 years. If it has been many years since you received your hepatitis B vaccine, or if you do not know when you were vaccinated, ask your doctor to check to see if you have antibodies against hepatitis B.


What are the side effects of vaccine?

There are very few side effects, the most common being soreness where you got the shot. You will NOT get hepatitis B from the vaccine. Pregnant women have received the hepatitis B vaccine with no risk to the baby.