Hep B Blog

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.

Seniors see doctors more often than young people, but they’re less likely to discuss sex and ask about (or use) safe sex practices. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), syphilis, chlamydia and HIV infections are rising again, and about one-quarter of newly reported HIV infections are in people age 55 and older.

If you live with hepatitis B, make sure you practice safe sex and your partner is vaccinated.

You’re never too old for the hepatitis B vaccine. However, as our immune systems age, our response to immunizations can weaken. The hepatitis B vaccine contains a single protein (antigen) from the virus. It triggers the immune system to develop antibodies to fight infection if we are ever infected with the real virus. But sometimes, our aging immune systems don’t produce enough antibodies after vaccination to eradicate the infection.

If you or your partner are getting immunized against hepatitis B, about one or two months after you get the last dose, see your doctor and get tested for hepatitis B antibodies (called titers). If you don’t have enough antibodies to fight infection, you can get a fourth vaccine (booster) shot or you can get the entire three doses again. In the meantime, use safe sex to protect you and your partner.

Make sure all medical equipment is sterile: As we all know it’s easy to spread colds and germs when you live with people in close quarters, but spreading hepatitis B can occur when health care workers re-use glucose monitors, which check blood-sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Each year, the CDC reports outbreaks of hepatitis B in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Remember, the hepatitis B virus can live for several days in dried blood on hard surfaces, so a little will go a long way if it’s on medical equipment used to poke or probe or collect blood.

What can you do? If you or a family resident has hepatitis B, remind health care staff who work in these facilities to be sure to practice universal precautions and make sure medical equipment is never re-used or shared.

Don’t assume your specialist knows about your hepatitis B: As you age and develop illnesses that require you to see specialists, make sure they know you have hepatitis B.

We all like to think doctors look carefully at our medical records, but sometimes information gets missed. Why should a specialist know about your hepatitis B? Because some of the medications they may prescribe can hurt our livers and weaken our immune systems.

For example, chemotherapy and other immune-suppressing drugs deliberately weaken our immune systems in order to fight cancer or rheumatoid arthritis. But when our immune systems weaken, hepatitis B can reactivate, resulting in an increase in viral load and liver damage. To prevent this, doctors can prescribe antivirals to keep our viral loads under control during treatment with immune-suppressing drugs.

Make sure your specialists know about your hepatitis B, and ask them to monitor your viral load and liver health if you require immune-suppressing medication. It’s important to protect your health and speak up at every age.

Comments on this blog are closed. These blogs are not regularly reviewed or updated, and information, data, or practice recommendations/guidelines may have changed. If you have questions about hepatitis B or this blog post, please email info@hepb.org or call 215-489-4900.