What Is Hepatitis B?

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
April 11, 2017

This virus, which attacks the liver, can hide in your body. You may not know you have it, and you can unknowingly pass this sneaky virus on to others.

Hepatitis B is a sneaky virus; you may not know you have it, and you can unknowingly pass it on to others. It hides in your cell’s nucleus and can attack your liver over years, causing potentially serious damage.


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How do you get hepatitis B?

The virus travels from one person to another through bodily fluid — nearly always blood or semen. So you might get it from unprotected sex with a man, if his semen entered your body and made it through a tear in your skin in your vagina or anus. When heroin users share a needle or syringe, they can pass the virus through their blood.  You might get it from a stranger’s blood when receiving a tattoo. (If you go to a tattoo parlor, ask about their safety practices). You could possibly even get it from sharing a razor or toothbrush.

You can’t get hepatitis B from food or water, sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, sneezing, or from insect bites.

If you are inclined to skip vaccination, remember that carriers spread the disease to other people who are vulnerable — do you want your son to be a danger to his sex partners? Do you want your daughter to be at risk?   

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

Around the world, most infections happen to unvaccinated babies or children and don’t have obvious symptoms; about 95 percent of infections resolve on their own without treatment. When symptoms of hepatitis B occur, they can look like a flu (fever, joint pain, fatigue, nausea, vomiting) and can last for weeks. You might see dark urine, clay-like feces, or a yellow tinge in the skin and eyes. If you see these symptoms in a child, especially one who has not been vaccinated, see a doctor immediately. 

Hepatitis B prevention

Beginning in 1991, the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended that all infants receive a vaccine that triggers your body’s protective immune response. It works in 90 percent of recipients, and since then new cases of hepatitis B have declined by a whopping 82 percent. Hepatitis B vaccination is a major public-health success.

The protection can decline over time, and scientists have been investigating whether booster shots should become routine. At the moment, there isn’t enough research to answer that question, according to a review by the prestigious Cochrane Group.

We do know that about 10 percent don’t respond adequately to the vaccine and, sadly, some children never get it. If you or your child haven’t been vaccinated for hepatitis B, please talk to your doctor or pediatrician immediately to discuss your concerns.

A chronic, hidden infection, won’t have symptoms in the early stages, but will show up on a blood test. Hepatitis B prevention should start with pregnancy. Get a screening before birth. If you have an infection, your baby should be vaccinated within 12 hours of birth. Also get tested if you have sex or live with someone who could be infected, have ever shared needles, have been institutionalized, are an active homosexual male, are exposed to infected people through work, or are receiving blood transfusions or chemotherapy. People born in Africa, Asia, India, Pakistan, or Eastern Europe have a higher risk.

If you suspect you (or your child) may have been exposed, go to a clinic or your doctor’s office. You may not recall whether you’ve been vaccinated or you may not have responded adequately to a shot — or its effects may have waned. Getting an injection of hepatitis B immune globulin within 12 hours of coming in contact with the virus may protect you. Also get vaccinated at the same time.




June 30, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA