Have you been told you may be infected with hepatitis B? Did you get a letter following a blood donation, or receive lab results indicating infection? It’s important you relax, educate yourself, and don’t let the news scare you. The next step is to determine if you are infected, and if so, do you have an acute or chronic infection.
You’ll want to talk with your doctor, and have a hepatitis B blood panel run. It is essential that you do not ignore the possibility of infection. That being said, it’s equally important that you not panic.
When you get your lab results, ask your doctor to explain them to you. It’s possible that you are not infected, but if you are, then you will need follow-up testing. Be sure to ask for copies of your labs for your own records. The test results are initially confusing, so you will want to refer back to the hard-copy results.
It is important to determine if you have an acute or chronic infection, but this may take some time. If you were infected with HBV as an adult, there is a good chance you are acutely infected. Fortunately, 90% of infected adults resolve the virus on their own. Recently infected adults may have flu-like symptoms, fatigue, yellowing of the eyes, or they may have no symptoms at all. The answer is in the lab work. Your doctor may run an HBc-IgM test, which will tell you if the infection is newly acquired. If it is a new infection, you will be monitored for the next one to six months to see if the HBV infection clears, and to ensure you are safe. During this time, you are infectious to others, so it is important to practice standard precautions and ensure household members are vaccinated. It is important to eat properly, rest, and avoid alcohol and tobacco. Talk to your doctor about the use of prescription and OTC drugs. Hopefully your body will be able to mount an appropriate immune response, and you will be able to rid yourself of the virus. If you remain surface antigen positive (HBsAg+) for more than six months you will be considered chronically infected.
Ten percent of those infected with HBV as an adult, will not clear the virus, and will become chronically infected. Another group of adults that may just be learning of their Hepatitis B status, are those that acquired HBV at birth. HBV infected mothers may unknowingly transmit HBV to babies. Transmission can be prevented with vaccination at birth, but in many countries where HBV is endemic, a cycle of HBV transmission may exist where vaccination has not been available, and the virus is passed unknowingly from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, 90% of those infected at birth are chronically infected, even though it may not be determined until adulthood. HBV is usually an uncomplaining disease, so it may be picked up accidently with blood-work , or when liver disease progresses due to decades of chronic infection.
Keep in mind that being vaccinated against hepatitis B will not protect you against the virus if you were infected with HBV prior to vaccination. This can be confusing since most people are not screened prior to vaccination, and is especially pertinent in high risk groups where the likelihood of mother to child transmission is greater.
The Hepatitis B Foundation has a step-by-step, comprehensive, yet-easy-to-understand tutorial that leads you through the process of determining your hepatitis B status, specific test results, and practical advice for coping with your HBV diagnosis.