Hepatitis B: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Alexandra Unfried

Alexandra earned her master's degree in nursing education and is currently a hospital supervisor/administrator.

Hepatitis B is a virus that occurs in the liver. It can be acute or chronic. This lesson will discuss the symptoms, causes, and treatments of hepatitis B.


Stacey is a 36-year-old woman. She has not been feeling well lately. Her symptoms are general, and she thinks she is just run down or getting the flu. She is tired, has no appetite, has abdominal pain, and has a headache. However, today Stacey noticed that her urine is a little dark. She decides to go see her doctor.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a virus of the liver. It can be acute, meaning that a person will have hepatitis B for a short period of time and then get better. Hepatitis B can also be chronic, meaning that it can cause a long-term infection and will eventually cause damage to the liver. Sometimes there are no symptoms associated with hepatitis B, but it is still contagious to others as long as it is present in the body.

Image of the hepatitis B virus
Image of the hepatitis B virus

Symptoms of Hepatitis B

Stacey sees her doctor and tells her that she feels unwell. She thinks that she has the beginning stages of the flu. Stacey's symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of appetite
  • Headache
  • Dark colored urine
  • Abdominal pain

Other symptoms of hepatitis B are:

  • Mild fever
  • Light or gray colored bowel movements
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itching
  • Jaundice (a yellowing of the eyes and skin that can indicate liver damage; usually appears after other symptoms go away)

Stacey's doctor decides to do some blood work to determine what is wrong with her since her symptoms are so vague. The doctor runs a full panel of blood work including a test for liver function and hepatitis due to the abdominal pain and dark urine. The liver function tests include albumin, ALP, ALT, AST, and bilirubin. The hepatitis test includes a viral serology or hepatitis panel that will test for any type of hepatitis, specific strains, and severity of illness.

Causes of Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is transmitted by body fluids including blood, saliva, semen, and vaginal secretions. It moves through mucous membranes and breaks in the skin. It can also be transmitted from mother to baby during birth. Specific actions and populations that increase the risk of contracting hepatitis B are:

  • Unprotected sex with someone infected with hepatitis B
  • Getting a tattoo or piercing with an unsterilized needle
  • Sharing drug needles with an infected person
  • Sharing razors or toothbrushes with someone infected with hepatitis B
  • People who are frequently exposed to blood, blood products, or other body fluids
  • Health care workers
  • Travelers who go to areas with uncertain sanitary conditions
  • People with a history of sexually transmitted diseases
  • Those who have received blood or blood products

Sharing intravenous needles for drug use is a risk factor for developing hepatitis B
Sharing intravenous needles for drug use is a risk factor for developing hepatitis B

Stacey has had several sexual partners and does not always practice safe sex. She has had four sexual partners in the last six months. Stacey makes sure to let her doctor know this information. The blood work has resulted, and Stacey is positive for hepatitis B. It seems that Stacey contracted it through having unprotected sex with a partner with hepatitis B.

Treatment of Hepatitis B

Treatment for hepatitis B depends on how long a person has had the virus, if there are symptoms, and if it is a chronic infection. Acute hepatitis B with minimal or no symptoms is treated at home with eating a balanced diet, drinking fluids, resting, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. If a person is experiencing severe symptoms, an antiviral medication may be prescribed, but it is uncommon. Hepatitis B is considered acute if it lasts less than six months.

Hepatitis B that does not subside within six months is termed chronic hepatitis B. This means that the body was not able to resolve the hepatitis and it is still present in the blood and liver. Once again, treatment will depend on how active the virus is in the body. This is determined by regular blood tests for the liver and hepatitis levels. If the hepatitis B is active and there are signs of liver damage, then an antiviral medication is used for treatment. Even those with chronic hepatitis B may not be treated with medication. People who have chronic hepatitis B with no symptoms are considered carriers and should still have regular blood work completed to monitor the virus.

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