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Basic Questions and Answers About Hepatitis B

October 23, 2015

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Table of Contents


What Is Hepatitis?

"Hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver. Toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, heavy alcohol use, and bacterial and viral infections can all cause hepatitis. Hepatitis is also the name of a family of viral infections that affect the liver; the most common types are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.

What Is the Difference Between Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C are diseases caused by three different viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms, they have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver differently. Hepatitis A appears only as an acute or newly occurring infection and does not become chronic. People with Hepatitis A usually improve without treatment. Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can also begin as acute infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. There are vaccines to prevent Hepatitis A and B; however, there is not one for Hepatitis C. If a person has had one type of viral hepatitis in the past, it is still possible to get the other types.

What Is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. It results from infection with the Hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis B can be either "acute" or "chronic."

Acute Hepatitis B virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the Hepatitis B virus. Acute infection can -- but does not always -- lead to chronic infection.

Chronic Hepatitis B virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the Hepatitis B virus remains in a person's body.



How Common Is Acute Hepatitis B in the United States?

In 2013, there were an estimated 19,764 new hepatitis B virus infection in the United States. However, the official number of reported Hepatitis B cases is much lower. Many people don't know they are infected or may not have symptoms and therefore never seek the attention of medical or public health officials.

Has the Number of People in the United States With Acute Hepatitis B Been Decreasing?

Yes, rates of acute Hepatitis B in the United States have declined by approximately 82% since 1991. At that time, routine Hepatitis B vaccination of children was implemented and has dramatically decreased the rates of the disease in the United States, particularly among children.

How Common Is Chronic Hepatitis B in the United States?

In the United States, an estimated 700,000 to 1.4 million persons have chronic hepatitis B virus infection.

How Common Is Chronic Hepatitis B Outside the United States?

Globally, chronic Hepatitis B affects approximately 240 million people and contributes to an estimated 786,000 deaths worldwide each year.


How Likely Is It That Acute Hepatitis B Will Become Chronic?

The likelihood depends upon the age at which someone becomes infected. The younger a person is when infected with Hepatitis B virus, the greater his or her chance of developing chronic Hepatitis B. Approximately 90% of infected infants will develop chronic infection. The risk goes down as a child gets older. Approximately 25%-50% of children infected between the ages of 1 and 5 years will develop chronic hepatitis. The risk drops to 6%-10% when a person is infected over 5 years of age. Worldwide, most people with chronic Hepatitis B were infected at birth or during early childhood.

How Is Hepatitis B Spread?

Hepatitis B is spread when blood, semen, or other body fluid infected with the Hepatitis B virus enters the body of a person who is not infected. People can become infected with the virus during activities such as:

  • Birth (spread from an infected mother to her baby during birth)
  • Sex with an infected partner
  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment
  • Sharing items such as razors or toothbrushes with an infected person
  • Direct contact with the blood or open sores of an infected person
  • Exposure to blood from needlesticks or other sharp instruments

Can a Person Spread Hepatitis B and Not Know It?

Yes. Many people with chronic Hepatitis B virus infection do not know they are infected since they do not feel or look sick. However, they still can spread the virus to others and are at risk of serious health problems themselves.

Can Hepatitis B Be Spread Through Sex?

Yes. Among adults in the United States, Hepatitis B is most commonly spread through sexual contact and accounts for nearly two-thirds of acute Hepatitis B cases. In fact, Hepatitis B is 50-100 times more infectious than HIV and can be passed through the exchange of body fluids, such as semen, vaginal fluids, and blood.

Can Hepatitis B Be Spread Through Food?

Unlike Hepatitis A, it is not spread routinely through food or water. However, there have been instances in which Hepatitis B has been spread to babies when they have received food pre-chewed by an infected person.

What Are Ways Hepatitis B Is Not Spread?

Hepatitis B virus is not spread by sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing.

Who Is at Risk for Hepatitis B?

Although anyone can get Hepatitis B, some people are at greater risk, such as those who:

  • Have sex with an infected person
  • Have multiple sex partners
  • Have a sexually transmitted disease
  • Are men who have sexual contact with other men
  • Inject drugs or share needles, syringes, or other drug equipment
  • Live with a person who has chronic Hepatitis B
  • Are infants born to infected mothers
  • Are exposed to blood on the job
  • Are hemodialysis patients
  • Travel to countries with moderate to high rates of Hepatitis B

If I Think I Have Been Exposed to the Hepatitis B Virus, What Should I Do?

If you are concerned that you might have been exposed to the Hepatitis B virus, call your health professional or your health department. If a person who has been exposed to Hepatitis B virus gets the Hepatitis B vaccine and/or a shot called "HBIG" (Hepatitis B immune globulin) within 24 hours, Hepatitis B infection may be prevented.

How Long Does the Hepatitis B Virus Survive Outside the Body?

Hepatitis B virus can survive outside the body at least 7 days. During that time, the virus can still cause infection if it enters the body of a person who is not infected.

How Should Blood Spills Be Cleaned From Surfaces to Make Sure That Hepatitis B Virus Is Gone?

All blood spills -- including those that have already dried -- should be cleaned and disinfected with a mixture of bleach and water (one part household bleach to 10 parts water). Gloves should always be used when cleaning up any blood spills. Even dried blood can present a risk to others.

If I Had Hepatitis B in the Past, Can I Get It Again?

No, once you recover from Hepatitis B, you develop antibodies that protect you from the virus for life. An antibody is a substance found in the blood that the body produces in response to a virus. Antibodies protect the body from disease by attaching to the virus and destroying it. However, some people, especially those infected during early childhood, remain infected for life because they never clear the virus from their bodies.

Can I Donate Blood, Organs or Semen if I Have Hepatitis B?

No, if you have ever tested positive for the Hepatitis B virus, experts recommend that you not donate blood, organs, or semen because this can put the recipient at great risk for getting hepatitis.

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This article was provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Visit the CDC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
Talk to a Physician About HIV/Hepatitis Coinfection in Our "Ask the Experts" Forums
More on Hepatitis B



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