It’s estimated that there are over 250 million hepatitis B virus carriers in the world. Hep B is a life-threatening disease that affects the liver. It can cause lifelong infection, scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver failure, and liver cancer.
A hep B infection can be prevented by getting vaccinated against it. Before we discuss hepatitis B vaccines, let’s understand how this disease is spread, how it’s diagnosed, and why you should get vaccinated.
How do you get hepatitis B?
There are many ways people can get the hepatitis B virus:
Hep B can transfer between people who share needles or syringes. It can also be spread through acupuncture, tattooing, and body piercing if proper sterilization isn’t practiced.
Sexual contact with an infected person is a common way of acquiring the hep B virus. Partners of people with hep B should get tested and vaccinated.
A pregnant woman can pass the virus to her baby during or after delivery, regardless of whether it’s through normal or cesarean delivery. Breastfeeding, however, is safe for mothers with hep B.
The hep B virus can be spread through close contact when bodily fluids from infected people enter tiny cracks or breaks in your skin. It could also enter through the eyes or mouth. It won’t, however, transfer through touch, handshakes, or shared meals or utensils.
Items and surfaces
The virus can survive a long time away from the human body. This means you can get the virus from toys, toothbrushes, gadgets, razors, and other things that an infected person has used.
Symptoms of hepatitis B
Signs and symptoms of hep B may vary but some of the most common are:
- Abdominal pain
- No appetite
- Yellowing skin and eyes (jaundice)
Several patients, especially infants and children, don’t develop symptoms. However, just because there are no signs, doesn’t mean the virus is under control. Those who don’t develop symptoms won’t know they have hep B until their liver starts to fail.
Hepatitis B screening and diagnosis
A hep B panel is a series of blood tests used to diagnose hepatitis B. Although only one blood sample is needed, the test itself consists of three parts:
- HBsAg (Hepatitis B surface antigen) – A positive or reactive result from this test indicates that the individual has hepatitis B and can spread it to others through their blood.
- Anti-HBs or HBsAb (Hepatitis B surface antibody) – A positive or reactive result from this test shows that the individual is protected, either from a vaccine or from a previous hepatitis B infection and that they can’t spread the infection to others.
- Anti-HBc or HBcAb (Hepatitis B core antibody) – A positive or reactive result from this test indicates that the individual has a past or current hep B infection. This can only be interpreted based on the results of the first two tests. If you get a positive result from this test, you need to speak with your healthcare provider for a thorough explanation of your status.
Several other tests may be performed, especially on patients who tested positive for the infection but aren’t showing any symptoms.
Types of hepatitis B
There are two types of hep B infections.
- Acute hepatitis B – This is a short-term infection that often involves flu-like symptoms, dark urine, clay-colored fecal matter, and stomach pain.
- Chronic hepatitis B – This is a long-term infection that occurs when the virus remains in a patient’s body. Most people who have chronic hep B don’t experience symptoms, making it a lot more dangerous because it’s wreaking havoc deeper within the body.
Both types should be taken seriously as both can spread and infect other people.
The importance of the hepatitis B vaccine
Hepatitis B can easily be acquired and transmitted to almost anyone. It’s important for people to equip themselves with a protective barrier to at least minimize the risks of getting infected. Hepatitis B vaccines are available and are safe and effective. They’re already part of routine vaccinations for newborn babies and children in the United States.
Who needs to get vaccinated?
The hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for everyone. However, they’re strongly recommended for the following individuals:
- People with hep B-infected partners
- People living with hep-B-infected family members, relatives, or friends
- Sexually active people with multiple partners
- People getting treated for sexually transmitted diseases
- Victims of sexual abuse or assault
- People in same-sex relationships
- People who share needles and syringes
- Healthcare and public health workers who are often exposed to body fluids and blood
- Staff and residents of care facilities for disabled patients
- People in jail or prison
- Travelers who often travel to regions with high hep B cases
- Patients with chronic liver disease, kidney disease and undergoing dialysis, HIV, hepatitis C, or diabetes
Who shouldn’t get vaccinated?
Make sure to talk with your healthcare provider first about getting the hep B vaccine if you fall under the following categories:
- You experienced allergic reactions after a previous hep B vaccine dose
- You have severe or life-threatening allergies
- You’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Although it’s safe, your doctor needs to rule out any risks that may come with vaccination.
- You’re moderately or severely ill with minor illnesses, such as a cold, cough, or flu.
How and when is the hepatitis B vaccine given?
The hepatitis B vaccine can be given alone or as part of a combination vaccine. The hepatitis B vaccine is given in 2, 3, or 4 shots. Infants should get their first dose at birth and will complete the series starting at six months of age.
Children and teens 18 years old and below who weren’t vaccinated as babies should get vaccinated. Adults can also get vaccinated anytime, as long as they haven’t been vaccinated before. Most people who are vaccinated with the hep B vaccine are immune to the virus for life.
Side effects of the hep B vaccine
There’s a rare chance that people will experience severe or life-threatening allergic reactions from a vaccine. But if you feel dizzy, your vision gets blurry, or you hear ringing in your ears, let your healthcare provider know immediately.
Where can I get vaccinated against hepatitis B?
The United States Center for Disease Control maintains a database of hepatitis B vaccine locations in the US. Vaccines are widely available in New York at urgent care centers, doctor’s offices, community health centers, pharmacies, and other community locations. Make sure to get you and your loved ones vaccinated against the hep B virus before it’s too late.