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Fact Sheet: Hepatitis B

What is hepatitis B?

    Hepatitis B is a form of liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Hepatitis B virus may be found in blood and other body fluids, such as urine, tears, semen, vaginal secretions, and saliva.

How common is hepatitis B?

    Hepatitis B can affect anyone. Each year in the United States more than 200,000 people of all ages get hepatitis B and close to 5,000 die of sickness caused by hepattis B. If you have had other forms of hepatitis, you can still get hepatitis B. Each year in the United States: 40,000-320,000 people get hepatitis B; 8,400-19,000 people are hospitalized; 5,000-6,000 people die from it.

How is hepatitis B spread?

    Hepatitis B is spread by direct contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person. It can be spread from mother to baby at birth as well as through unprotected sexual intercourse, and needles that have not been sterilized. It is not spread through food or water or by casual contact. Five to ten percent of the people who get hepatitis B will carry the virus in their blood for the rest of their lives and can infect others.

Who is at risk?

  • Hemodialysis patients;
  • Hemophiliacs;
  • People who require frequent and/or large-volume blood transfusions or clotting factor concentrates (such as hemophiliacs);
  • Injection drug users;
  • Men who have sex with men;
  • Sexual contacts of infected persons;
  • Persons with more than one sexual partner;
  • Household contacts of infected persons or someone with lifelong HBV infection;
  • Inmates of long-term correctional facilities;
  • Patients in homes for the developmentally disabled
  • Infants born to infected mothers;
  • Infants/children of immigrants from disease-endemic areas such as Southeast Asia, Africa, the Amazon Basin in South America, the Pacific Islands, and the Middle East;
  • People who have a job involving contact with human blood;
  • Hospital and ambulatory medical services personnel;
  • Medical, dental, and research laboratory workers;
  • Employees of nursing homes, residential-care facilities, homes for the developmentally disabled or people involved in home health care;
  • People who are involved in blood collection and processing;
  • People who repair medical and dental equipment;
  • Law enforcement/fire and rescue/lifesaving personnel;
  • People who are employed in correctional institutions or in school for the mentally retarded;
  • Regulated-waste handlers;
  • Morticians and embalmers;
  • Travelers to areas where hepatitis B is common.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

    Only half the people who get hepatitis B have any symptoms. When symptoms occur, they may include:
  • Yellowing of the eyes or skin;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Nausea, vomiting, fever;
  • Pain in muscles, joints or stomach;
  • Extreme tiredness and not being able to work for weeks or months.

How is hepatitis B diagnosed?

    You need a blood test to tell this type of hepatitis from other types of hepatitis. A follow-up blood test tells if you are still carrying the virus.

What is the treatment for hepatitis B?

    There is no cure for hepatitis B; this is why prevention is so important. Antiviral drugs are available for those people who do not get over the initial infection, these drugs might reduce your chance of getting severe liver disease. The antiviral drugs are not approved for persons under the age of 18 years old and should not be taken if you are pregnant.

Are infected person contagious?

    When people first get hepatitis B, they are contagious for several weeks before they get symptoms and for the whole time that they feel sick, which is 1-2 months. People who do not clear the virus (5-10% of the people who get hepatitis B) are contagious for the rest of their lives.

How can I avoid getting hepatitis B?

    Get vaccinated. The hepatitis B vaccine is safe, effective and your best protection.
  • Routinely vaccinate infants and children 11-12 years old.
  • Vaccinate high-risk groups of all ages.
  • Men who have sex with other men should get vaccinated against both hepatitis A and B. Practice safe sex. Have only one steady partner; use latex condoms every time you have sex if you have more than one partner. Never share items that may have blood or bodily fluid on them.
  • Do not share items such as razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, and other personal care items.
  • Don't share needles, syringes, cookers, cotton, water, or rinse cups. If you shoot drugs, get help to stop or get into a treatment program.
  • Be cautious when getting tattoos or body piercing. You can get infected if the artist or piercer doesn't sterilize needles and equipment properly, doesn't use gloves, and doesn't wash hands properly.
  • Health care workers should follow standard precautions. Follow standard precautions and handle needles and sharps safely. If you are pregnant, ask your doctor to test you for hepatitis B. If you are positive, make sure your baby gets vaccine and immune globulin right after birth.

Is the vaccine safe?

  • The hepatitis B vaccine is strongly endorsed by the medical, scientific and public health communities as a safe and effective way to prevent disease and death.
  • The vaccine has been shown to be very safe when given to infants, children, and adults.
  • There is no confirmed evidence that indicates that the vaccine can cause illness. Case reports of illness following vaccine have been unrelated to the vaccine itself.
  • The vaccine is continually assessed and researched for possible health effects that could be associated with the vaccine.

Who should get the hepatitis B vaccine?

    All infants, children ages 11-12 years who didn't get the vaccine as infants, and adults over 18 years of age who are at risk for HBV infection. Hepatitis B vaccine has been recommended as a routine infant vaccination since 1991, and as a routine adolescent vaccination since 1995.

Where can I find more information about hepatitis B and the hepatitis B vaccine?

    Further information regarding hepatitis B and hepatitis B vaccine can be obtained by contacting the Hepatitis Hotline of the Hepatitis Branch, CDC at 1-888-4HEP-CDC (1-888-443-7232) or by contacting your local or state health department. For information about vaccines contact the National Immunization Program, CDC Information Hotline at 1-800-232-2522.

If you think you may have Hepatitis B it is a good idea to contact your doctor or health clinic for information on where you can get tested. If you can't afford a doctor and/or are not currently on a health plan or insurance, call 1-800-SAFENET (723-3638) for information on low-cost clinics near you.

Issued by: The Oregon Health Services
Source: CDC; MERCK Vaccine Division
Date Published: January 2001
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