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Newly Diagnosed with Hepatitis B? How Did I Get this? Learning the HBV Transmission Basics

If you have just been diagnosed with hepatitis B virus (HBV) then you need to understand how HBV is transmitted. This is important whether you have an acute or chronic infection.  You must understand you are infectious and can transmit the virus to others.

How is hepatitis B transmitted? Hepatitis B is transmitted through direct contact with blood and infected body fluids. This can happen through direct blood-to-blood contact, unprotected sex, unsterile needles, medical or dental equipment, and from a HBV infected mother to her baby at birth.  For kids, pediatric experts report that the fluid that oozes from cuts and open sores is also highly infectious, so keep those open cuts covered. HBV can also be transmitted inadvertently by the sharing of personal items such as razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, body jewelry and other personal items that have small amounts of blood on them.

Hepatitis B is not transmitted casually by sneezing or coughing, shaking hands or sharing or preparing a meal.  In fact HBV is not contracted during most of life’s daily activities. You don’t need to keep cups and utensils separate. Hugging, or even kissing won’t cause infection unless there are bleeding gums or open sores during the exchange. It’s really all about trace amounts of infected blood, though the virus is in other bodily fluids in lower concentrations.  For example, it’s not about the saliva on the toothbrush that is a big concern, but rather the potential for trace amounts of blood that could be exchanged with a shared toothbrush.

How did I get this? If you have been diagnosed with hepatitis B virus you are likely racking your brain trying to figure out how you could have gotten HBV.  Some can immediately track their likely exposure to a recent event, or perhaps a time period in their life where they were more likely to have been exposed. They may fit into an at-risk category for hepatitis B due to lifestyle choices, country of origin, frequent travel and exposure in endemic areas of the world, or an unsafe blood transfusion, or medical or dental procedures performed without proper infection control. Some may never know how they were infected. What is important is that you are now aware.

Since HBV is a silent infection there can be years before it is detected.  Many individuals born in endemic parts of the globe find out later in life that they are hepatitis B positive, even though they have likely had HBV since birth or early-childhood. Children are especially vulnerable to chronic HBV. Greater than 90% of babies and up to 50% of young children infected with HBV will remain chronically infected, and most will have no symptoms.  Often it remains undetected until it is caught in routine blood work or later in life after there is liver inflammation or disease progression. In Asia, vertical transmission from mother to child is particularly common; whereas in Africa, horizontal transmission at a young age may be more likely.

Although not casually transmitted, there are inadvertent opportunities for exposure to hepatitis B. If you are from an area where HBV is very common, then the odds of exposure, transmission, and infection will be higher. Many are surprised when family is tested, and they learn hepatitis B appears to “run in their family”.  Hepatitis B is not genetic, but it is very easily passed from an HBsAg positive mom to her baby at birth. Hep B is a vaccine preventable disease, but not all moms living with the virus have access to the birth dose for their baby or able to complete the vaccine series, or they have a high viral load resulting in failure of HBV birth prophylaxis. The good news is that today we can prevent the transmission of hepatitis B to the next generation.

If you do, or have participated in high-risk activities at some point in your life, you are also at greater risk. This is not a time to judge or be judged.

Time to move forward. Unless your infection is acute and you can definitively identify your exposure, I would advise that you let it go and move forward. I spent a number of years wondering about the details of my daughter’s infection, but ultimately, it really didn’t matter. What is important is seeing a doctor to learn more about your infection, getting treatment if you need it, and preventing transmission to others.

Newly Diagnosed with Hepatitis B? Acute or Chronic? Learning the Hep B Basics

Image courtesy of dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’ve just been diagnosed with hepatitis B after a routine blood test or following a blood donation, you may be feeling overwhelmed with information about this complicated infection and references to acute or chronic hepatitis B.

Here is an explanation of these two terms and what happens when you’re first infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and body fluids. It can be spread during unprotected sex, unsafe medical procedures, exposure to blood that enters your body through a cut,  or by sharing personal items such as body jewelry or toothbrushes. Most commonly it is spread during childbirth when the mother is infected.

What is a chronic infection? When we’re infected as newborns or young children, our immature immune systems don’t notice or fight the virus and it travels to our liver and begins reproducing. With no opposition from our immune systems, a hepatitis B infection can continue for years. When a hepatitis B infection lasts longer than six months, it is considered a chronic or long-term infection. Most people with chronic hepatitis B were infected at birth or during early childhood. Immunization with the hepatitis B vaccine and hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG), if available, within 12 to 24 hours of birth can break this mother-to-child infection cycle, but the birth vaccine dose and often HBIG is not always available around the world.

What is an acute infection? When we’re infected with HBV as healthy adults, about 90 percent of us are able to get rid of the infection within six months. It can take up to six months for our immune systems to generate antibodies and eradicate the infection in our liver. This short-term infection is called acute hepatitis B.

To determine if you have an acute or chronic infection, you must be tested for hepatitis B over a six-month period. The specific test that indicates if you are infected is the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) test. This antigen covers the surface of the virus and usually there are lots of HBsAg in your blood when you’re infected. If you test positive for HBsAg for longer than six months, it means you have a chronic hepatitis B infection.

But, if you no longer test positive (or “reactive”) for HBsAg after six months and you develop hepatitis B surface antibodies (HBsAb), then you have cleared hepatitis B after an “acute” infection. There are some additional blood tests that your doctor may order to get a better understanding of your infection, but not everyone has access to these tests. Some tests are rather expensive and they may still need to be repeated over time in order to confirm the diagnosis. Please be patient. The good news is that hepatitis B is not typically an emergency.

Here is more good news. If you are a healthy adult and are newly or acutely infected, know that your chances are good that the hepatitis B infection will go away on its own. It is rare that you require medication to get rid of the virus, your immune system does that for you.  A person with a new hepatitis B infection may not have any symptoms, or they may not be very notable. For example, you might feel more tired. About 70 percent of people newly-infected with hepatitis B never experience symptoms.

But, some people experience severe symptoms like jaundice (yellowing skin or eyes), severe nausea or vomiting, or a bloated stomach (unrelated to your weight), and they need to see a doctor immediately. If you have a new or acute infection, even these drastic symptoms may not necessarily mean that you need any form of treatment, but you will need to be monitored with additional tests to make sure your liver is safe.

If you can’t confirm you were infected as a child, you will need to wait the six months to find out if you cleared your infection. Please be patient and do not panic, but remember you do need to take precautions during this time to make sure you don’t spread the infection to others. Practice safe sex (use a condom), and don’t share personal items that may have trace amounts of blood on them.

Also, you can suggest that your family members get screened for hepatitis B and vaccinated if needed. If you were infected at birth, there is a chance that your siblings may also be infected. Sexual partners and close household members should also be tested. There may be a nine-week period right after infection when they may not test positive for HBsAg even if they have been infected.