Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, which over time can lead to cirrhosis (scar tissue within the liver), liver failure and even liver cancer. Although there are several different kinds of hepatitis, including A, B and C, it is hepatitis B that is most often associated with sexual transmission.
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a blood-borne and sexually transmitted virus that can be spread from exposure to blood or semen as well as other bodily fluids. In the United States, approximately 1.2 million persons have chronic hepatitis B and are sources for HBV transmission to others. Since the late 1980s the incidence of acute hepatitis B has declined steadily, especially among vaccinated children. In fact, between 1990 and 2002 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported a 67% decline in the incidence of acute hepatitis B. The most common risk factor for hepatitis B is multiple sex partners and I.V. drug use. About 50% of hepatitis B in the U.S. is sexually acquired.
What are the symptoms of Hepatitis B?
About 30% of individuals with hepatitis B don’t have symptoms. The majority, however will exhibit one or more of the following: jaundice, fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting as well as joint pain.
Who is at risk?
The major risk factors include:
- Women with multiple sex partners
- Women with a diagnosis of a sexually transmitted disease
- Women who have sex with bisexual men
- Sexual contact with an infected person
- Intravenous drug use
- Sexual contact with an I.V. drug user
- Health care and public safety workers
- Hemodialysis patients
So Hepatitis B can be transmitted by sexual contact?
Yes. Sexual transmission is less likely if condoms are used. In long-term relationships, the partners of carriers should be tested and, if susceptible, vaccinated against hepatitis B.
How can Hepatitis B be prevented?
If you haven’t received the hepatitis B vaccine you should consult with your health care provider. The vaccine is safe and effective. Here are other precautions.
- Use latex condoms if you are not in a long term mutually monogamous sexual relationship.
- Do not use intravenous drugs. Never share needles, syringes, etc.
- Do not share razor blades or toothbrushes
- If you are a health care provider use routine “universal precautions”
What happens after infection with hepatitis B?
There are three possible responses to a hepatitis B infection.
- About 50-60% who are infected get rid of the virus without becoming ill and become immune (protected from further infection).
- About 20% of those that get infected will become ill with full-blow jaundice, abdominal pain, weakness and lethargy—they get “acute hepatitis”. They will eventually get rid of the virus and not become a carrier.
- Another 20% will develop acute hepatitis and become chronic carriers of the virus.
Do people carrying a chronic infection become ill?
Chronic carriers do not get ill when they are infected or for many years after their initial infection. Most will probably never suffer from the effects of the virus. However, some chronically infected people do develop cirrhosis, a serious liver disease, as adults. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure and is often the setting for liver cancer. Women are less likely to develop liver cancer than men.
How do I know if I might be chronically infected?
A simple blood test can tell. If you are chronically infected you will need to check your liver functions periodically and be referred to specialists who can help you manage and avoid many of the long term consequences of being chronically infected.
Where can I get additional information?