Is Hepatitis B Contagious?

Hepatitis B is a type of liver inflammation that is due to HBV, the hepatitis B virus. The CDC estimates that each year, between 2,000 and 4,000 people within the United States die from complications related to hepatitis B. It can be either chronic or acute. The acute version leads to symptoms appearing quickly in the case of adults and it rarely affects children. Infections that occur in children have a higher risk of being chronic. The chronic hepatitis B develops more slowly and you may not even notice symptoms unless there are complications. With so many potential issues, it is important to know whether hepatitis B is contagious.

Is Hepatitis B Contagious?

The quick answer is that yes, hepatitis B is very contagious. In most cases, the incubation period lasts around three months, after which symptoms will begin to appear. Although this is the average, the incubation period can last anywhere from two to five months. Keep in mind that you are contagious during the incubation period, even when symptoms aren't present.

Most people with an acute short-term infection won't spread the virus after their body begins making a particular type of antibody for hepatitis B, which takes a few weeks. In the case of a chronic or long-term infection, you can spread hepatitis B whenever your infection is active.

How Is Hepatitis B Spread?

Knowing the answer to “is hepatitis B contagious” doesn't help if you don't know how it spreads. It is spread via vaginal fluids, semen, or blood of an infected person. In most cases, this will happen in one of several situations:

  • Sexual contact: The virus causing hepatitis B can enter your body through the urethra, mouth, vagina, or a break within the rectum lining.
  • Sharing equipment like needles that are used to inject illegal drugs. This can include spoons, water and cotton.
  • If you handle blood or equipment used to draw it at work, you may become infected through this, especially when accidentally stuck with an infected instrument or needle. Infection can also occur when blood splashes onto a cut within the skin, the mouth, or the eyes.
  • Babies can get hepatitis B from their mothers during childbirth. This would occur during the delivery process when the baby touches its mother's bodily fluids within the birth canal. There is no risk of spreading hepatitis B via breast feeding.
  • Hepatitis B can be spread via tattoos or body piercings if the needles haven't been sterilized properly, allowing infected blood to enter the skin.
  • Sharing toiletries like toothbrushes and razors can also spread the disease.

Historically, organ transplants and blood transfusions could spread hepatitis B. Now, however, all donations are screened, making it extremely unlikely that it will be spread in this way.

How to Tell If You Are HBV Infected

Common Symptoms to Look out for

Remember that symptoms of hepatitis B won't necessarily appear for several months or years and the answer to “is hepatitis B contagious during this period” is still yes. Potential symptoms include:

  • Weakness
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Joint pain
  • Dark urine
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes

If you notice symptoms of hepatitis B, talk to your doctor immediately. Do the same if you have been exposed since you can sometimes prevent infection.

Screening

You may need to be screened for hepatitis B if you meet any of the following criteria:

  • Are pregnant
  • Receive kidney dialysis
  • Have HIV
  • Are a man who has sex with men
  • Use drugs
  • Have been in prison
  • Have been in a country where the virus is common
  • Have been in contact with someone with the virus

Blood Tests

There are various blood tests that screen for hepatitis B.

  • The surface antigen test lets you know that you are contagious. If it is negative, you don't have the condition and if it is positive, you do and are contagious.
  • A hepatitis B core antigen test determines if you are currently infected by HBV. A positive result may mean you are currently recovering from a case of acute hepatitis B, but it typically means you have the chronic version.
  • An antibody hepatitis B surface antigen test lets you know if you are immune to HBV. Those with positive tests are unlikely to get the virus and have probably either been vaccinated or recovered from acute hepatitis B.
  • Your doctor may also suggest a liver function test to check for heightened levels of enzymes. This will show if your liver is facing stress, which would then lead to hepatitis B testing.

How to Prevent Hepatitis B

1. Testing and Vaccination

Since you know that “the answer to is hepatitis B contagious” is yes, it makes sense to get the vaccine. It is highly effective and safe. It only takes 3 doses during 6 months and protection will last 20 years or your entire life. Experts suggest you get the vaccine if you are traveling somewhere where HBV is common and all children should get it at birth. They also recommend testing for HBV if you have one of the risk factors mentioned above.

2. Perinatal Testing

Certain areas, such as California, require all pregnant women be tested for hepatitis B. If the baby of an infected mother isn't immunized within several hours of birth, they will be infected. The infection is nearly always prevented if they receive the HBV vaccine and hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) immediately. Other members of the family should also be tested and vaccinated.

3. Healthy Lifestyle

The ideal method of preventing hepatitis B is through vaccination, but you can also lower your risk with healthy habits. Stop doing drugs, particularly those that involve injection and seek help if necessary. If you can't stop, at the very least, don't share needles, syringes and other items. Avoid sharing personal items like toothbrushes and razors. Public safety and health care workers should take care when handling sharp objects like needles and follow body fluid precautions. If you plan on getting a body piercing, tattoo, or doing acupuncture, make sure the instruments are sterilized. Always use condoms if you have sex with more than one monogamous partner.

What to Do After Exposure to Hepatitis B

If you are exposed to hepatitis B, you can get the vaccine and HBIG as soon as possible. Doing so typically prevents an infection. You should preferably get these medications within 24 hours and it must be within 2 weeks following exposure. Contact your doctor right away if you have been exposed to take preventative action. 

 
 
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