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Hepatitis B

Screening and Diagnosis | Treatment | For More Information

Chronic hepatitis B is the primary cause of liver cancer in the world. Although most prevalent in Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands, the chronic form of the disease still affects more than 2 million Americans, according to the Hepatitis B Foundation. More than 50 percent of hepatitis B patients in the United States are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.

A contagious blood-borne virus, hepatitis B often goes undetected and untreated. Most long-term hepatitis B carriers are symptom-free for years. In many cases the diagnosis is only established decades later, when infected individuals have developed serious liver disease, such as cirrhosis, liver cancer and/or organ failure.

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is transmitted via blood and body fluids, typically through unprotected sex, blood transfusions or intravenous drug use. Mother-to-child transmission during childbirth is another common avenue for contracting the virus and responsible for most infections worldwide, especially in countries with high infection rates. Without population-based testing, asymptomatic parents may unwittingly pass the virus on to the next generation. An effective vaccine exists to prevent hepatitis B. In the United States, children are routinely immunized against HBV.

Screening and Diagnosis of Hepatitis B

After asking questions about your medical history and lifestyle and performing a physical exam, your liver disease expert may order a specific blood test for hepatitis B, if you have not already been tested. This screening test works to show the presence of the virus in your body. While acute hepatitis B infection typically causes symptoms and abnormal liver tests, signs of chronic hepatitis B infection often don’t show up until your liver has been damaged.

Symptoms of longstanding disease include:

  • fatigue
  • dark urine
  • jaundice (yellow eye discoloration)
  • abnormal stool color
  • abdominal pain

For patients who test positive for HBV and who may have unknowingly had the disease for many years, your physician may arrange for a noninvasive FibroScan® or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam, blood tests or liver biopsy. These tests help assess the extent of liver damage, also known as “disease stage.” The staging process allows your physician to develop a personalized treatment plan.

Treatment for Hepatitis B

Recent or “acute” hepatitis B infections in adults typically resolve on their own, with no need for medications. Patients whose immune system does not clear the infection develop what is called “chronic hepatitis.” While there is no definitive cure for most individuals with chronic hepatitis B, antiviral therapy can effectively prevent or ameliorate progressive liver damage.

At NorthShore, we provide our patients with the latest and most effective therapeutic options, including tenofovir and entecavir. These oral medications help reduce viral replication, liver inflammation and the risk of liver scarring. They are typically prescribed as a life-long therapy. In combination with periodic liver ultrasound tests, these medications can prevent some of the potential complications of chronic infection, such as cirrhosis and liver failure. They may also reduce – but not eliminate – the risk of liver cancer. Chronic HBV patients may require lifelong monitoring for liver cancer, even in those whose liver disease has been well-controlled through medication and regular doctor’s visits.

For More Information

For more information on hepatitis B symptoms and treatment or to schedule an appointment with one of our hepatologists, please call 847.657.1900.