People who do not recover from hepatitis B infection are chronically infected, and there are over 1 million chronically infected people in the United States today. A chronically infected person is someone who has had hepatitis B virus in her or his blood for more than 6 months.
About 5% of adults who acquire hepatitis B infection become chronically infected, but children younger than 5 years of age have a greater risk. The younger the child is at the time of infection, the greater the risk that the child will have a lifelong infection. Many babies born to chronically infected mothers will also become chronically infected with hepatitis B virus, unless the babies are given two shots in the hospital and at least two more during the 6 months after birth to protect them from the infection.
A chronically infected person usually has no signs or symptoms of hepatitis B infection, but remains infected for years or for a lifetime and can pass hepatitis B virus to others. Sometimes, chronically infected people will clear the infection from their bodies on their own, but most will not. Although most chronically infected people have no serious problems with hepatitis B and lead normal, healthy lives, some develop liver problems later. Chronically infected people are at much higher risk than the general population for liver failure or liver cancer.
A person with hepatitis B infection should see a physician knowledgeable about the management of liver disease every 6 to 12 months. The physician will do blood tests to check the health of the liver, as well as test for liver cancer. It is best for chronically infected people to avoid alcohol, because alcohol can injure the liver. Additionally, your physician should know about all the medicines you are taking, even over-the-counter drugs, because some medicines can hurt the liver. If there are any liver test abnormalities, consult a liver specialist regarding your need for further testing and treatment.
If your physician tells you your liver disease has progressed, here are some extra precautions you should take:
Each year, about 5,000 people in the U.S. die of hepatitis B-related liver failure. And another 1,500 people die from hepatitis B-related liver cancer.
Hepatitis B infection is the most common cause of liver cancer worldwide and ranks second only to cigarettes as the world's leading cause of cancer.