Q. I've just heard that a friend has hepatitis B, but she doesn't seem too worried about it. Is this life threatening? What is this disease, and how does one get it? And is there treatment?
A. Hepatitis B involves inflammation of the liver. The disease leads to serious damage in over half of the patients. It is one of the major reasons for liver transplantation. There are over 1 million carriers of hepatitis B in the United States. Hepatitis can be transmitted via sexual activity, blood transfusion, or other behaviors involving needles, such as intravenous drug use or even tattoos or body piercing.
Hepatitis B can also be transmitted by saliva through sharing toothbrushes or pass through cuts or scraps in the skin. Most people infected with this disease have no symptoms yet are still infected and can infect others. Other people feel flu-like symptoms or have dark urine and yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice).
Hepatitis can be prevented with safe sex practices and avoidance of anything that transmits blood. There is also a very safe and effective vaccine for hepatitis B, which is recommended for all adults. A blood test is available for detection of hepatitis B so that you can see if you are a carrier of the disease.
There is no effective treatment for chronic hepatitis, although some benefit is seen with interferon treatment.
Talk to your friend about taking steps to maintain her health. Remember, too, that there may be other reasons, even depression, why your friend doesn't take her health problems seriously. Encourage her to see her doctor soon, and regularly. Having a support system of caring individuals, like you, can go a long way toward maintaining good health despite a chronic condition.