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

If you have just been diagnosed with hepatitis B virus (HBV) then you need to understand how HBV is transmitted. This is the case whether you are acutely or chronically infected.  You must understand you are infectious at this time and can transmit the virus to others.

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

HBV is not transmitted casually by sneezing or coughing, shaking hands or sharing or preparing a meal. In fact it is not contracted during most of life’s daily activities. 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, high risk employment, or unsafe blood or medical or dental procedures without adequate infection control. (Sadly, this is common in many parts of our world, but accidents can happen anywhere).

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. 90% of babies and up to 50% of young children infected with HBV will remain chronic, and most will have no symptoms.  Often it remains undetected until it is caught in routine blood work or later in life when there may be liver disease progression. In Asia, vertical transmission from mother to child is very common; whereas in Africa, horizontal transmission at a young age is often the culprit.

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. If you do, or have participated in high-risk activities at some point in your life, you are also at greater risk. People are often quick to point out that they have never injected drugs or participated in more obvious high-risk activities, but let’s face it – multiple sex partners? Certainly sexual experimentation in college or early adulthood is not that unique. Things happen, people change, or sometimes they don’t. This isn’t a time for judging, it’s a reflection of what happened yesterday or 20 years ago that may have exposed you to HBV and resulted in infection.  That being said, unless it happened just recently 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 doesn’t matter.

Time to move forward.

The next step – preventing transmission to others, Part II

Diagnosed With Hepatitis B? Symptoms? Learning the HBV Basics

The tricky part about hepatitis B symptoms is that there are often no symptoms. That is why hepatitis B is referred to as a “silent infection”. This can be a little confusing to people newly diagnosed with HBV – whether it is determined you have an acute or chronic infection.

If you have a new, acute infection, there is a good chance you will be one of the roughly 69% with no notable symptoms. You may feel a little under-the-weather or a little more tired then usual, or you may notice no difference at all. You may learn about your infection through blood work following a possible exposure, or following screening from a blood donation. Since 90% of adults infected with hepatitis B will clear the infection – most with no medical intervention, it is possible for you to be infected, clear the virus, and never even know until blood work shows evidence of a past infection.

Then again you may be one of the roughly 30% who do have symptoms. You may experience flu-like symptoms such as achy muscles and joints, a low-grade fever and fatigue. Because your liver plays a role in digestion, you may experience a loss of appetite, feel a little nauseous, or experience pain in the upper right quadrant of your abdomen. You may have dark, tea colored urine. Then again, these symptoms may not be so severe that you take much notice. It’s okay, because these symptoms typically do not require treatment. However, if you are symptomatic, or you are concerned, please see your doctor, so blood tests can be run to be sure your liver is safe.

Here are the important symptoms that you need to have checked-out immediately: jaundice, severe nausea and vomiting, and bloating or swelling of the abdomen. If you have any of these symptoms, you need to seek immediate medical attention. Your doctor will want to run blood work, which will likely need to be repeated while you are symptomatic and as you recover, to monitor your condition and be sure you are safe. At this time, your doctor will determine the next steps –perhaps you will need to be admitted to the hospital for fluids and observation if you are severely dehydrated, or more likely, you’ll recover at home with regular lab work and follow-up with your doctor.

If you notice that your skin or the whites of your eyes are yellow, then you are suffering from jaundice. This is due to a build-up of bilirubin in the blood and tissues. Your liver is an amazing organ and one of its responsibilities is the filtering out of your body’s bi-products or other toxins from your blood, maintaining them at healthy levels. Jaundice is very unsettling to those that have it because it is noticeable by others. Normal coloring will return once the body is able to rid itself of the buildup of these toxins.

Although rare, (approximately 1%) acute hepatitis B can result in life-threatening, fulminant hepatitis, which can lead to liver failure. Fulminant hepatitis requires immediate medical attention.

The other possibility is that you are actually chronically infected, and that your infection is not new. You may have been living with HBV since birth or early childhood. Your hepatitis B infection may be a complete surprise to you.  You might ask, “How could I have this infection all of these years and not even know it?” Once again, HBV is a silent infection.  For those chronically infected, obvious symptoms may not occur for decades. The liver is a hard-working, non-complaining organ, but you don’t want to ignore your HBV and put yourself at increased risk for cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer. Believe it or not, the sooner you learn about your HBV infection, the better, so that you get regular monitoring, seek treatment if necessary, and make lifestyle changes that are good for your liver and overall health.

Whether you have symptoms or not, there are a few things you need to remember. You must go back to your doctor for further lab work to determine if your HBV infection is acute or chronic. If you are still surface antigen positive (HBsAg+) after 6 months, then you have a chronic infection and need to see a liver specialist to learn more about your hepatitis B infection. The other thing you must do is take precautions so you do not transmit hepatitis B to sexual partners and close household contacts.  And finally, be sure to take care of your liver by eating a well-balanced diet, avoiding alcohol, and talk to your doctor or pharmacist about prescriptions or OTC drugs that may be hard on your liver.

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.

Is Your Family Getting Together for the Holidays? Time to Discover Your Medical History

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When we have chronic hepatitis B, knowing our family medical history can give us an inside edge to fight this infection.

Hepatitis B is an infection that often runs in families, and knowing how our parents or grandparents handled this liver disease can give us insider information about our own genetic prospects with hepatitis B.

Experts estimate that more than half of us worldwide became infected at birth. Our mothers may have been infected with hepatitis B and immunization, which can prevent infection if administered within 12 hours of birth, was not available to us as newborns, nor to our mothers or grandmothers. Continue reading "Is Your Family Getting Together for the Holidays? Time to Discover Your Medical History"

The Annual Hepatitis B Check-up: Facing Mortality and a Missing History

Image by worradmu, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image by worradmu, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

For more than 20 years, I have accompanied my daughter to her annual hepatitis B check-up with her liver specialist. She is 22 and does not need me to come, but I always go out of habit and love.

After the appointment, we sit eating lunch and I talk about how lucky she is that her liver has been healthy and her viral load undetectable for many years. Recently, she started testing negative for the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). However, she has never developed hepatitis B surface antibodies. Her immune system has cleaned house, but has lacked the power to produce enough surface antibodies to show up on lab tests and declare her free of infection.

For the second year in a row, her doctor gave her a hepatitis B vaccine shot, an experiment to see if the injection of HBsAg would spur her immune system to generate enough surface antibodies to register in a lab test. Continue reading "The Annual Hepatitis B Check-up: Facing Mortality and a Missing History"

Your Doctor Not Screening You for Liver Cancer? Time for a Talk

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The longer we have hepatitis B, the higher our risk of developing liver cancer. With every decade of life, our liver cancer risk increases 2.7-times, according to a report on Viral Hepatitis in the Elderly published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

But current medical guidelines don’t spell out exactly when liver cancer testing should begin in many hepatitis B patients who don’t have liver damage (cirrhosis) or a family history of liver cancer, and are not of Asian or African descent.

Age is clearly an important factor when it comes to liver cancer, “… but current guidelines only provide age-specific recommendations for (liver cancer) surveillance in hepatitis B carriers of Asian ethnicity (men over age 40 and women over age 50),” a team of University of Miami and Veterans Affairs researchers wrote in the journal article. Continue reading "Your Doctor Not Screening You for Liver Cancer? Time for a Talk"

Get Tested for Liver Cancer, Your Life May Depend on It

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month. It may be a sleeper of a event when compared to other health campaigns, but for us who live with viral hepatitis, it’s an uncomfortable but critical reminder of the importance of monitoring our liver health to prevent cancer.

Viral hepatitis, especially B and C, are viral infections that can cause liver cancer  (also called hepatocellular carcinoma or HCC.) Researchers are still studying why some people are more prone to liver cancer, but we who live with chronic hepatitis B or C have a 25 to 40 percent lifetime risk of developing liver cancer. The infection, which hijacks our liver cells to manufacture more virus, causes inflammation, scarring and even cancer as the liver cells grow out of control.

The longer we are infected with viral hepatitis, the higher our risk of developing liver cancer. While liver cancer often occurs in people with cirrhosis (severe liver scarring), some of us develop cancer without cirrhosis. Continue reading "Get Tested for Liver Cancer, Your Life May Depend on It"

Growing Older with Hepatitis B: Prevention and Precautions Still Matter

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Most people living with chronic hepatitis B today are over age 50, and like their younger counterparts, they need to prevent spreading hepatitis B to their sexual partners, housemates, and neighbors in assisted living facilities.

You’re never too old for safe sex: You may not have to worry about pregnancy any more, but you still need to protect yourself and your partner against sexually transmitted diseases such as hepatitis B. Using a condom (and keeping a barrier between you and potentially infectious body fluids) is essential because many seniors have not been immunized against hepatitis B.

The widespread marketing of erectile dysfunction drugs allows for sex by older men, and thinning and dryness of vaginal tissue in older women may raise their risk of infection during intercourse. Continue reading "Growing Older with Hepatitis B: Prevention and Precautions Still Matter"

When Is That Pain Hep B-related and When Is It Something Else?

Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When people with chronic hepatitis B experience abdominal pain, we often wonder if it’s related to our liver and if our hepatitis B is getting worse.

According to experts, hepatitis B rarely causes abdominal pain. In celebration of Pain Awareness Month, here are some insights to help you understand what might be behind your abdominal pain when you live with chronic hepatitis B.

First, it’s not called the silent infection for nothing. When first infected, most children and nearly 70 percent of adults never experience any direct symptoms from hepatitis B. When people do have symptoms, such as aches, nausea and fever, they usually last for only a few days. Only a very small percentage have symptoms that persist long-term. Continue reading "When Is That Pain Hep B-related and When Is It Something Else?"

First World Hepatitis Summit Focuses on Global Plan for Elimination by 2030

The joint North and South Americas group build relationships across borders to eradicate hepatitis B.
The North and South Americas group builds relationships to eradicate viral hepatitis.

The mood was euphoric. It was a love fest, actually. Last week, more than 600 policy makers, public health experts, and representatives from non-governmental organizations and patient advocacy groups from 80 countries were invited to participate in the first World Hepatitis Summit in Scotland hosted by the World Hepatitis Alliance in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO). The Hepatitis B Foundation was pleased to be invited and to speak during the pre-summit meeting as well.

The message was serious. Hepatitis B and C kill more people each year than HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and combined are the seventh-leading cause of death worldwide, yet viral hepatitis as a global health concern remains mostly invisible and under-funded. Continue reading "First World Hepatitis Summit Focuses on Global Plan for Elimination by 2030"