Hepatitis B

Do you know that you have an incredible chemical factory inside your body? The chemical factory produces useful chemicals, recycles the old chemicals into new ones, filters and disposes the harmful chemical from the body. We call this chemical factory- Liver.

Yes, it is an important organ in your body without which you cannot survive. It removes toxic and harmful chemicals from the body, fights infection, helps in digestion of food, and also stores nutrients, vitamins and energy.

What if the chemical factory shuts down? All toxins would accumulate in our body! Scary, isn’t it? There are conditions which affect the liver, causing it to shut down or impair its function. When there is inflammation/ painful red swelling of the liver secondary to injury, infection, or other causes that hampers normal function, it is medically termed as hepatitis.

While it is a serious infection that can lead to liver failure and even cancer of the liver it is also among the most preventable conditions. All it takes is a little awareness, preventive measures and a sincere wish to protect yourself and your loved ones from being victims of the lethal virus.

Silent but lethal

Hepatitis B is a disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis B virus that can be transmitted from one person to another person through infected blood or body fluids. Ironical but true, that it is not the virus per se that causes liver injury.

The immune response it triggers in your body by its presence causes inflammation and injury to the liver, while trying to eliminate the virus.

When you are first exposed to the virus your body may be able to eliminate the infection, and you can be cured of it. Successful persistence of the virus in your body for over 6 months can lead to chronic liver disease. It may be a minimum of 4 months after exposure, before you experience any symptoms or until it is very severe.

There are also chances of you carrying the virus in your body without any symptoms for the rest of your life. Nevertheless, the risk of others getting infected from you remains the same.

Once infected, protective antibodies in your blood will guard the body against any further infection with Hepatitis B virus.

Risk of infection

You are at a risk of getting the infection if you come in contact with an infected person’s blood, semen, or other body fluids. This happens when you have sex with an infected partner, get tattooed or pierced with unsterilized tools, get accidentally injured with infected needles, share drug needles with an infected person, or share razors/toothbrush with a person having hepatitis B.

You are also at high risk if you are a medical/ paramedical personnel, need blood or blood related products transfusions due to illness, or any of your family members have hepatitis B. Your unborn child is at risk if you are pregnant and carry the infection.

Many people affected with hepatitis B do not know they are suffering from the infection. They may feel they have been suffering from flu. A few symptoms of hepatitis B are:

  • Fatigue
  • Mild fever
  • Headache
  • Belly pain
  • Poor intake of food
  • Dark colored urine
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Yellowish eyes and skin

You may need to see your physician if you develop symptoms of jaundice such as yellowish eyes and skin, tiredness, upset stomach, fever, loss of appetite, diarrhea, light colored stools, dark colored urine, swollen stomach and ankles, and easy bruising.

While you may never experience the above symptoms despite the infection, it is necessary that you get evaluated by your physician, if you are at risk or have a history of exposure.

If left untreated the hepatitis B virus can lead to cirrhosis of your liver (normal liver cells die and are replaced by scar tissue). The normal function of the liver is affected as the damaged areas stop working. Eventually it can lead to liver failure, liver cancer and death. It also increases your risk of infection with hepatitis D virus that can worsen your liver disease.

Your doctor evaluates hepatitis B infection by doing certain blood tests to assess your liver function and levels of antibodies in your body present against the virus.

An ultrasound imaging of the abdomen to evaluate health and function of your liver may be done.

He may recommend a liver biopsy (removal of a tiny piece of liver to be examined under the microscope) if there is suspicion of persistence of the infection in your body for over 6 months.

During the period of your acute symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, you may require hospitalization for fluid replacement and to ensure adequate nutritional balance. Your physician will also recommend regular blood tests and physical checkups for the treatment of hepatitis B and to monitor progression of the disease after the acute episode.

Once you have the disease, there is no cure for elimination of the virus from the body. Few lifestyle measures that can help prevent deterioration of the condition are abstinence from alcohol, smoking, and intake of a well balanced diet that is low in fat and includes lots of vegetables. Your physician may prescribe drugs that are either shots or oral medications to slow or stop the virus from damaging the liver if you develop chronic hepatitis.

If chronic hepatitis B causes liver failure then liver transplant (replacing failed liver with a healthy one from a donor) may be the only option available. You may however need to take medicines after the surgery to prevent the infection from coming back.

If infection with hepatitis B causes liver cancer then surgery and chemotherapy may help in prolonging life; but the outcome is always fatal in all cases.

You can avoid infection with hepatitis B by getting immunized with the hepatitis B vaccine. While the vaccine is safe for use in adults and children, you may also take it if you are pregnant. However, ensure that you take all the 3 shots for complete protection. The vaccine is also given as a routine immunization in all infants to prevent hepatitis B.

Apart from this, paying attention to certain other measures can go a long way in preventing infection with hepatitis B. Ensure that you use a condom during sex, do not share drug needles, do not borrow razors/ toothbrushes belonging to an infected person, use sterile tools to make tattoos or piercings, and wear gloves when you touch another person’s blood.

You may need to see your doctor immediately, if you suspect that you have been exposed to the infection. Your doctor will administer a medicine called hepatitis B immunoglobulin along with the first shot of hepatitis B vaccine that would help in preventing you from falling sick.

Inform your sexual partner if you have been diagnosed with the condition. Your partner needs to get immunized with Hepatitis B vaccine to protect against the disease.

The other precautions to be taken are to keep all your cuts covered, avoid sharing any sharp instruments and toothbrushes, and do not donate blood or blood products. If you are a carrier of the infection during pregnancy then your baby needs to be immunized within 12 hours of being born.

Hepatitis B is a more infectious virus as compared to even the AIDS virus. Infection with the virus causes liver damage and has the potential to even lead to liver failure and cancer later in life. A few points to prevent HBV re:

  • Unsafe sex with multiple partners
  • Intravenous drug abuse
  • Using unsterilized needles for tattoos are some of the preventable risk factors.

Remember that it’s a silent disease and once infected the end result is always fatal. While there is no cure for the disease the only positive thing about the condition is that it is highly preventable. Make the most of it and get yourself and your family immunized with the hepatitis B vaccine. Timely diagnosis and early medical intervention can at least aid in slowing the progression of liver damage if not cure it completely.