Acute vs. Chronic Infection (NEW)
If you have been diagnosed with hepatitis B, it is important to understand if your infection is “acute” or “chronic.”
When a person is first infected with the hepatitis B virus, it is called an "acute infection" (or a new infection). Many people are able to naturally get rid of an acute infection.
If the infection persists for more than 6 months, it is considered a “chronic infection.”
Acute infections have few, if any, lasting effects. People with chronic infections are at greater risk for developing serious liver diseases, including cirrhosis and liver cancer, and should take precautions to keep their liver healthy.
Why do some people naturally get rid of the virus while others develop chronic infections? The risk of developing a chronic hepatitis B infection is directly related to the age at which a person is first exposed to the hepatitis B virus. The younger a person is when they are first infected, the greater the risk of developing a chronic hepatitis B infection.
If you are newly infected with hepatitis B, your infection is considered acute. An acute hepatitis B infection may last up to six months and you may pass the virus to others during this time.
Your doctor will order follow up testing to determine whether you have successfully gotten rid of the virus. Until your health care provider confirms that the blood test shows that there is no more hepatitis B virus in your blood, it is important to protect others from a possible infection.
Hepatitis B can be spread to others through blood and bodily fluids. If your sexual partner(s) and household members are not vaccinated, they should be tested for hepatitis B. If they have not been infected then they should also start the hepatitis B vaccine series. You should use condoms for all sexual activity, wash hands after any potential exposure to blood, and avoid sharing sharp objects such as razors, nail clippers, earrings, and toothbrushes.
Most people experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Symptoms may appear 60-150 days after infection, with the average being 90 days. The majority of acute infections are treated by rest and managing symptoms.
Most common symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Joint and muscle pain
- Low-grade fever
- Stomach pain
Rarely, people may experience severe symptoms such as:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
- Bloated stomach
A rare, life-threatening condition called “fulminant hepatitis” can occur with a new acute infection and requires immediate, urgent medical attention since a person can go into sudden liver failure.
Because the hepatitis B virus attacks your liver, you should take these simple steps to protect your liver during an infection:
- avoid alcohol
- stop or limit smoking
- eat healthy foods
- avoid greasy or fatty foods
- talk to your health care provider about how your prescriptions and over-the-counter medications may affect your liver
The use of vitamins and liver health supplements will likely not assist your recovery and may actually cause more harm than good to the liver.
Be sure to follow-up with your health care provider for any additional blood tests that are needed to confirm your recovery from an acute infection.
Chronic Hepatitis B Infection
If you test positive for the hepatitis B virus for more than six months, your infection is considered to be chronic. This means that your immune system is not able to get rid of the hepatitis B virus and it still remains in your blood and liver.
Because most people do not have symptoms and can be diagnosed decades after their initial exposure to the hepatitis B virus, it can be a shock and a surprise to be diagnosed with a chronic hepatitis B infection. The good news is that most people with chronic hepatitis B should expect to live a long and healthy life.
Not everyone who is diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B requires treatment. Depending on your test results, your doctor may decide to wait and monitor your condition. If your doctor determines that you should be treated, he will discuss current treatment options. There are effective drug therapies that can control and even stop the hepatitis B virus from further damaging a liver. There are also promising new drugs in the research pipeline that could provide a cure in the very near future.
The biggest concern with a chronic hepatitis B infection is that it can cause damage to the liver over time, leading to serious liver disease or liver cancer. You can minimize your risk by:
- Scheduling visits every six months (or at least every year) with a liver specialist or a health care provider who is knowledgeable about hepatitis B so they can monitor the health of your liver.
- Talking to your doctor about whether treatment for your chronic hepatitis B infection would be helpful in preventing serious liver disease or liver cancer.
- Asking to be screened for liver cancer during your regular visits. Early detection equals more treatment options and a longer life.
- Avoiding or limiting alcohol and smoking.
- Eating a healthy diet with lots of vegetables and avoiding fried, greasy foods.