According to the World Health Organization (WHO) viral hepatitis in the Southeast Asian region is likely to cause the death of five million people over the next decade.

In light of this, it becomes very important to know what exactly is hepatitis B, the symptoms, what causes the disease, how can it be prevented, what are the treatment options available, the diagnosis and the follow-up.

We will deal with each of these topics one by one, dividing this series on hepatitis B into four parts – coming up with one post every week.

What Is Hepatitis B:

Hepatitis (the word denotes inflammation of the liver) is the most common form of viral infection that affects the liver. The viruses may be of different types, thus the infections are known as hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. Out of these, hepatitis B is the liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus (hep B or HBV).

This is a blood borne viral infection, which means that the virus is present in the blood stream as well as in the bodily fluids of the affected person.

Hepatitis B viral infection has two phases –

1) Acute hepatitis B – This refers to the initial period (around four months) after the body has contacted the virus.

2) Chronic hepatitis B – It is an infection that lasts longer than six months. Only about 5% to 10% of adults and 90% of children go on to develop chronic infection.

Chronic hepatitis generally progresses through the following four stages –

  • Immune tolerant phase (the immune system does not react to the virus)
  • Immune clearance phase (the immune system attempts to eliminate the virus causing inflammation, liver injury and scarring)
  • Quiescent phase (the virus is less active but might eventually lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer)

This progression may take place over several decades, usually dependent on the age at which the infection is acquired and the body’s response to the virus.

About 60% of people with chronic infection become healthy chronic carriers. Carriers of hepatitis B virus do not develop any symptoms however they can still transmit the viral infection to others.

Symptoms of Hepatitis B:

Individuals with acute hepatitis B may not show any symptoms for a long time thus making the diagnosis difficult.

Some of the early symptoms however may include the following –

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Flu
  • Skin rash and itching
  • Headache
  • Joint pain