What You Need to Know About Hepatitis B

What You Need to Know About Hepatitis B

This article is for people who have hepatitis B or may be tested for hepatitis B, their partners and family, and anyone who wants to learn more about hepatitis B. The goal of this patient education activity is to educate patients about hepatitis B and why treatment is important.

You will learn about:

  • What hepatitis B is

  • What causes hepatitis B and who's at risk for getting it

  • How hepatitis B is diagnosed and what tests your doctor may do

  • Why treating hepatitis B is important

  • Questions to ask your doctor

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What Is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a serious liver infection. If you get infected, your body’s immune system can try to fight it off. If your body is able to clear the virus, you may have hepatitis B for a few months (acute infection) and then become immune. This means you can't get hepatitis B again.

But some adults -- and babies and children -- aren’t able to clear the virus and develop long-term (chronic) or life-long hepatitis B. If the infection doesn’t go away in about 6 months, it means that hepatitis B has become chronic or life-long.

Hepatitis B can cause serious liver damage and scarring (cirrhosis). This can lead to liver failure, where your liver stops working properly, and even liver cancer. It can also cause blood vessel problems and kidney disease. Hepatitis B can even cause death if it’s not treated.

What Causes Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). You can get infected if you come into contact with body fluids -- such as blood, saliva, semen, and vaginal fluids -- from an infected person. Hepatitis B isn’t spread through casual contact.

The most common ways to get hepatitis B include:

  • Sex. If you have sex with someone who’s infected and their body fluids enter your body

  • Intravenous (IV) drug use. Sharing needles, syringes, or drug equipment with someone who’s infected

  • Accidental needle sticks. If you get stuck by a needle or other sharp object that was used on an infected person

  • Mother to child. Pregnant women with hepatitis B can pass it to their babies during childbirth. In many parts of the world, this is the way that most people get hepatitis B

Who's at Risk for Getting Hepatitis B?

Anyone can get hepatitis B, but some people have a greater risk of getting infected.

This includes people who:

  • Have sex with or live with someone who has hepatitis B

  • Inject drugs or share needles and drug equipment

  • Have jobs that expose them to body fluids

  • Share items like toothbrushes, razors, or medical equipment with an infected person

  • Traveled to areas with high rates of hepatitis B, such as Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and Eastern Europe

Babies born to infected mothers and people who get hemodialysis (a treatment to filter your blood if you have kidney problems) also have a bigger chance of getting hepatitis B infection.

If you think you've been exposed to hepatitis B, contact your doctor right away. They may be able to give you treatment to lower your chance of infection.

How to Know if You Have Hepatitis B

You won’t know on your own if you have hepatitis B. Most people don’t feel sick and don’t have symptoms after they’ve become infected, but they can still spread the virus to others. If symptoms do happen, they may not show up for 1 to 6 months after becoming infected.

The only way to know for sure if you have hepatitis B is with a blood test that your doctor can do.

Other tests your doctor may do include:

  • A physical exam to look for liver damage and any symptoms

  • A liver ultrasound, a way of taking images of your liver to see how healthy it is

  • Liver biopsy, a procedure where a special needle removes a small piece of liver tissue so it can be examined

Treatment Is Important

A healthy liver is important. Your liver filters blood coming from your digestive tract, creating nutrients for your body to use. It also breaks down any medicines you take into forms that are easier for your body to use.

Hepatitis B can cause serious liver damage, blood vessel problems, kidney disease, and even death if it’s not treated.

If you’re pregnant, you can pass hepatitis B to your baby at birth. If your baby gets infected and isn’t treated, he or she could have long-term liver problems.

There’s no cure for hepatitis B, but there is treatment. Treatment helps lower your risk of liver disease and can even save your life. It also helps prevent you from passing the infection to other people.

Hepatitis B and Your Daily Life

Many people with hepatitis B don’t know they’ve been infected because they don’t feel sick or have symptoms. This means that getting tested by a doctor is even more important.

Knowing if you have hepatitis B will help you make a plan with your doctor about treatment. Treatment can slow down damage to your liver and help you prevent spreading the virus so you can protect those around you.

A patient talks about his personal journey to treatment.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Be sure to talk to your doctor about hepatitis B and treatment options that may be right for you.

Questions to ask your doctor can include:

  • Am I at risk for getting hepatitis B?

  • How will I know if I have hepatitis B?

  • What tests should I have?

  • How can I protect others from getting infected?

  • Should my partner and family be tested for hepatitis B?

  • Has hepatitis B damaged my liver or caused other problems?

  • What medicines or treatments are available, and what are their side effects?

  • Are there any lifestyle changes I should make?

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View Additional Materials

Patient Handout

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Hepatitis B -- NIH

Hepatitis B -- CDC

Hepatitis B -- WHO

Hepatitis B Foundation

Hep B United

Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD

Senior Director, Learning & Development, Medscape, LLC

Disclosure: Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Senior Scientific Content Manager, Medscape, LLC

Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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