Questions & Answers
Hepatitis B - The Disease
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  1. What is hepatitis B?

    Hepatitis B is a serious public health problem that affects people of all ages in the United States and around the world. In 2001, an estimated 78,000 people contracted hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection in the United States. Hepatitis B is caused by a highly infectious virus that attacks the liver.

    HBV infection can lead to severe illness, liver damage, and, in some cases, death. The best way to prevent hepatitis B is to be immunized with hepatitis B vaccine, a vaccine used in the U.S. since 1981 and proven safe and effective.

  2. Who is at risk for hepatitis B infection?

    About 5% of people in the U.S. will get infected with hepatitis B sometime during their lives. If you engage in certain behaviors, your risk may be much higher. You may be at risk if you:

    • have a job that exposes you to human blood
    • share a household with someone who has lifelong hepatitis B infection
    • have sex with a person infected with hepatitis B
    • have sex with more than one partner during a six-month period
    • received blood transfusions in the past before excellent blood testing was available (1975)
    • are a person whose parents were born in Asia, Africa, the Amazon Basin of South America, the Pacific Islands, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East
    • were born in an area listed above
    • were adopted from an area listed above
    • are an Alaska native
    • have hemophilia
    • are a patient or worker in an institution for the developmentally disabled
    • inject drugs
    • are an inmate of a long-term correctional facility
    • travel internationally to areas with a high prevalence of hepatitis B

    The largest outbreak of hepatitis B in the U.S. occurred in 1942 in military personnel who were given vaccine to protect them from yellow fever. It was unknown at the time that this vaccine contained a human blood component that was contaminated with hepatitis B virus. The outbreak caused over 50,000 cases of hepatitis B with jaundice.

  3. How does hepatitis B differ from hepatitis A and C?

    Hepatitis A, B, and C are the names of different viruses that attack and injure the liver. All can cause similar symptoms.

    Usually, people get hepatitis A from household or sexual contact with a person who has hepatitis A. Hepatitis A virus is spread from person to person by putting something in the mouth that has been contaminated with the stool of a person with hepatitis A. This type of transmission is called "fecal-oral." For this reason, the virus is more easily spread in areas where there are poor sanitary conditions or where good personal hygiene is not observed. Casual contact, as in the usual office, factory, or school setting, does not spread the virus.

    Hepatitis C, formerly known as hepatitis non-A non-B, is caused by the hepatitis C virus and is spread in much the same way as hepatitis B. Both hepatitis B and C can cause lifelong liver problems, while hepatitis A does not. Vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and hepatitis B are now available. There is no vaccine yet for hepatitis C. If you've had hepatitis A or C in the past, it is still possible to get hepatitis B.

  4. How is hepatitis B spread?

    Hepatitis B is found in blood and certain body fluids—such as serum, semen, vaginal secretions—of people infected with hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis B is not found in sweat, tears, urine, or respiratory secretions. Contact with even small amounts of infected blood can cause infection. Hepatitis B virus can be spread by:

    • unprotected sex
    • injecting drugs
    • an infected mother to her child during birth
    • contact with the blood or open sores of an infected person
    • human bites
    • sharing a household with a chronically infected person
    • sharing items such as razors, toothbrushes, or washcloths
    • pre-chewing food for babies or sharing chewing gum
    • using unsterilized needles in ear or body piercing, tattooing, or acupuncture
    • using the same immunization needle on more than one person

    Hepatitis B virus IS NOT spread by:

    • casual contact, like holding hands
    • eating food prepared by an infected person
    • kissing or hugging
    • sharing silverware, plates, or cups
    • visiting an infected person's home
    • sneezing or coughing