Hepatitis B (HBV) is virus that primarily causes inflammation of the liver. It can lead to scarring of the organ, chronic infection, liver failure and liver cancer. If it isn’t treated, it can be fatal. One can become a chronic carrier if the infection lasts for more than six months.
HBV can spread commonly through:
- Sexual contact – There is likelihood of contracting hepatitis B if you have unprotected sex with an infected person. The virus can be passed to you if the person’s saliva, blood, vaginal secretions or semen enter your body.
- Sharing of needles – Needles and syringes that are contaminated with infected blood can spread HBV easily. You can face a high risk of hepatitis B if you share IV drug paraphernalia.
- Needlestick injuries – HBV is a concern for healthcare workers, and people who work with hypodermic syringes and other needle equipment, and come in contact with human blood. They are wounds caused by needles that puncture the skin accidentally, that typically occur during usage, disassembly or disposal of needles.
- Mother to child – Women who are pregnant and infected with Hepatitis B can pass the virus to their infant during childbirth. However, the newborn can receive vaccinations to avoid getting the infection. Pregnant women or women who want to become pregnant should talk to their doctors about being tested for Hepatitis B.
Risk factors of Hepatitis B
The virus spread through contact with body fluids like blood and semen from an infected person. The risk of HBV infection increases if you:
- Share needles during IV drug use
- Have unprotected sex with someone who is infected with HBV or with more than one sex partner
- Are a man who has sex with other men
- Work in a job with exposure to human blood
- Travel to regions with increased HBV infection rates such as Asian, Eastern Europe, the Pacific Islands and Africa
Symptoms of Hepatitis B
There are often no symptoms of Hepatitis B, but it can also feel like other illnesses such as the flu. Hence, it is possible to have the infection and not know it. When they do appear, the symptoms usually show up about one to four months after being infected.
The signs and symptoms of Hepatitis B include:
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dark-coloured urine
- Pale-coloured bowel movements
Seeing a Doctor
Head to a clinic and see a doctor immediately if you know you have been exposed to hepatitis B. Within 24 hours of exposure to the virus, a preventive treatment may help reduce your risk of infection. If you are showing symptoms, your doctor will examine for signs of liver damage such as belly pain and yellowing skin.
The tests that can help diagnose hepatitis B are:
- Blood tests to detect signs of the virus in the body, and assess whether it’s acute or chronic
- Liver ultrasound can show the amount of liver damage
- Liver biopsy involves a small tissue sample of the liver for testing to check for liver damage
This article is written by Dr Chong Chern Hao, a gastroenterology specialist in Singapore.