Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver that can be serious. The hepatitis B virus is carried in the blood and attacks the cells of the liver. Once inside a liver cell, the virus makes the cell produce more virus particles that are then released into the bloodstream. People who cannot clear the virus from their systems face an increased risk of cirrhosis as well as liver cancer.
Hepatitis B infection can cause both short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) illness. The acute form of the disease usually begins between one month and six months after exposure to the virus. The flu-like illness of acute hepatitis usually clears up within weeks to months. In some cases, however, acute hepatitis can be serious enough to cause hospitalization and rarely, death.
Hepatitis B that persists becomes chronic. A person with chronic hepatitis will have harbored the virus for at least six months, sometimes only with vague symptoms. But the virus continues to be active and can be detected in the blood. Damage to the liver during this state may also continue, eventually causing cirrhosis or liver cancer. The disease can also flare into acute hepatitis.
Many people who have hepatitis B do not show signs of disease. Only about 30% of adults who are infected with hepatitis B will develop an acute episode; 30% of adults will clear the virus without showing any symptoms at all. Among children under the age of four, only about 10% develop symptoms of acute hepatitis. Although children are less likely to show the symptoms of acute hepatitis, they are more likely to develop chronic hepatitis--the chronic state occurs in about 25% of children under the age of four and in about 80% of infants. About 10% of adults infected with hepatitis B will develop chronic disease. But in general, most adults will clear the virus from their system without medical therapy. Many people with chronic infections will clear the virus from their system over time. But doctors will treat these people in an effort to speed up the clearance of the virus, preventing ongoing harm to the liver.
Hepatitis B is spread by contact with bodily fluids; usually blood. It is commonly passed on through sexual contact, intravenous drug use, and use of contaminated blood products. The virus can also be passed from mother to infant during birth.
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