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Diseases & Topics

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). Infection with Hepatitis B can be life-long and cause cirrhosis, liver cancer, liver failure, and death. About 78,000 Americans each year are infected the Hepatitis B virus, and about 1.2 million Americans are currently living with chronic Hepatitis B infection. One out of every 20 people in the United States will get infected with HBV sometime during their lives.

Hepatitis B virus can be found in the blood, as well as in the saliva, semen and other body fluids of an infected person. It is spread by direct contact with infected body fluids, usually by sexual contact or a needle-stick injury. It can also be spread from an HBV-infected mother to her baby during childbirth. Hepatitis B is not spread by casual contact.

The virus can be found in blood and other body fluids several weeks before symptoms appear and generally persists for several months afterward. About 10 percent of adults who are infected with Hepatitis B develop chronic Hepatitis B and are then always capable of transmitting the virus to others. Infants infected at birth have a 90 percent chance of becoming chronically infected and capable of transmitting the virus.

The symptoms of Hepatitis B include fatigue, poor appetite, abdominal pain, fever, nausea, vomiting, occasional joint pain, hives or rash. Urine may become darker in color, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the white of the eyes) may appear. Adults are more likely than children to develop symptoms. However, up to 50 percent of adults who have acute infection do not have any symptoms. Symptoms may appear between six weeks and six months after exposure but usually occur within four months.

Once the symptoms appear, there are no special medicines that can be used to treat a person who is acutely infected. Generally, bed rest and a healthy diet is all that is needed. Chronic Hepatitis B can be successfully treated with interferon in 25 to 50 percent of cases.

Prevention

A safe and effective vaccine to prevent Hepatitis B infection is available. In North Carolina, all infants are required to receive immunization against Hepatitis B at the time of their birth. In addition to all newborns, the hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for people in high-risk settings or engaged in high-risk behaviors who have not already been infected or vaccinated. This includes the following:

  • Healthcare and public safety workers who might be exposed to blood.
  • Sexually active persons not in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship.
  • Persons diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease.
  • Men who have sex with men.
  • Sex partners of HBV-infected persons.
  • Injecting drug users.
  • Household contacts of persons chronically infected with HBV.
  • International travelers to moderate- or high-risk areas of the world.
  • Immigrants and children of immigrants from areas with elevated HBV rates.

To avoid exposure to Hepatitis B, people with diabetes should never share blood glucose meters, fingerstick devices or other diabetes-care equipment.

People with HBV infection should follow standard hygienic practices to ensure that close contacts are not directly infected by their blood or other body fluids. They must not share razors, toothbrushes or any other object that may be contaminated with blood. They should use a condom when having sex. In addition, susceptible household members — especially sexual partners — should be immunized with Hepatitis B vaccine. It is also important that people with chronic HBV notify their dentists and healthcare providers of their positive status. People with chronic HBV infection should avoid drinking alcohol or taking medications that are harmful to the liver.

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