What Is Hepatitis B?

Tamera Jackson by Tamera Jackson | Licensed since 2007
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, the word “hepatitis” means “inflammation of the liver.” Hepatitis can be caused by many things, including alcohol abuse, drug toxicity, and certain viral infections. Hepatitis B–along with hepatitis A and hepatitis C–are three of the most common kinds of viral liver infections.

There are two types of hepatitis B:

  • Chronic. The virus remains in the person’s body for life, causing long-term illness and potentially life-threatening complications, such as liver disease or failure.
  • Acute. This is a short-term illness that usually responds to treatment. It may, but doesn’t always, lead to chronic hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B risk factors

Hepatitis B is most commonly spread through sexual contact with an infected person; about two-thirds of all acute hepatitis B infections are acquired this way. It can also be spread through exposure to blood or other bodily fluids or by sharing contaminated personal items such as razors or even toothbrushes.

You’re at highest risk for developing the disease if you:

  • Have sex with someone infected by hepatitis B.
  • Have multiple sex partners or are men who have sex with men.
  • Have HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Inject illegal drugs or share needles or syringes.
  • Are born to a mother infected by hepatitis B.
  • Live with someone infected by chronic hepatitis B.
  • Have an occupation where you come in contact with blood.
  • Are on hemodialysis.
  • Travel to countries with a medium to high rate of hepatitis B.

Acute hepatitis B rates have dropped over 80% since 1991, when the CDC recommended routine immunization against the disease for children and at-risk adults. Getting the hepatitis B vaccine series is one of the most important ways you can protect yourself against the condition; ask your health-care provider if the shots are right for you.

Hepatitis B symptoms

Roughly 70% of adults infected with acute hepatitis B will develop symptoms; the most common time for symptoms to appear is three months after exposure, although they may occur any time between six weeks and six months. Even if a person infected with hepatitis B isn’t showing symptoms, he or she can still transmit the virus to others.

Symptoms for acute hepatitis B may include:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Joint pain
  • Dark-colored urine and clay-like bowel movements
  • Jaundice

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 90% of adults who contract acute hepatitis B will recover naturally within the first year and roughly 5% will develop chronic hepatitis B.

In contrast to the acute version, people infected with chronic hepatitis B may not display symptoms for up to 20 to 30 years, even as their liver begins to show damage.

Hepatitis B is diagnosed with any one of several blood tests. If you have the condition, the blood tests can tell you whether you have acute or chronic hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B treatment

There is no medical treatment for acute hepatitis B. Treatment usually includes making sure the infected person gets enough rest, maintains a healthy diet, and stays hydrated, especially if there is vomiting and diarrhea. If symptoms are severe, the individual may need to be hospitalized to better manage symptoms.

For those who develop chronic hepatitis B, treatment usually involves long-term therapy with oral antiviral drugs; however, few people with chronic hepatitis B are fully cured, although medications may keep the virus from duplicating. Most people will require lifelong, regular monitoring to check for liver damage and other complications, and, in extreme cases of liver damage or cirrhosis (chronic liver damage), a liver transplant may be necessary.

People with chronic hepatitis B should avoid alcohol and consult a health-care provider before taking any over-the-counter supplements or medications, which may result in further liver damage.

Medicare Coverage for hepatitis B

Medicare Part B covers certain preventive services, including hepatitis B vaccinations. If you are at high or medium risk for hepatitis B, you may be eligible to receive the vaccination for free if your health-care provider accepts Medicare assignment (meaning the doctor agrees to accept Medicare’s approved cost for the shot as the full payment). If you need hospital care for treatment of hepatitis B, you’re covered under Part A.

If you develop chronic hepatitis B, which is typically treated with prescription medications, Medicare Part D coverage can help pay for medications your doctor prescribes; this is available through a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan if you’re enrolled in Original Medicare or a Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug plan if you’re enrolled in Medicare Part C.

If you have more questions about Medicare coverage for hepatitis B or would like information on Medicare plan options that may help you cover any potential treatment costs, I’m happy to provide answers. For information about plan options in your area, click the Compare Plans button. If you’d rather schedule a phone call or get answers in a personalized email, click one of the buttons below. The “View profile” link tells you a little more about me.

This website and its contents are for informational purposes only. Nothing on this website should ever be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult with your medical provider regarding diagnosis or treatment for a health condition, including decisions about the correct medication for your condition, as well as prior to undertaking any specific exercise or dietary routine.

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