Hepatitis B is an infectious disease that can be life-threatening under certain conditions. Responsible for the infection is the hepatitis B virus (HBV), which killed an estimated 887 000 people in 2015. The virus damages the liver cells, causing chronic inflammation. If left untreated, it can lead to liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of cancer arising from the cells of the liver. Today, there are preventive vaccines against HBV, that offer almost 100% protection and prevent an individual from acquiring the virus.

Is hepatitis B an STD?

Hepatitis B has many ways of transmission. One of them is sexual contact with an HBV positive individual. Therefore, hepatitis B is an STD that might spread through vaginal and seminal fluids. Those at higher risk for acquiring the infection are unvaccinated individuals with multiple sex partners, men who have sex with men, and those who come in contact with sex workers frequently. People that have behavioral patterns similar to the above should get tested and start considering getting vaccinated.

What causes hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by HBV, a virus that infects the cells of the liver. The liver infection leads to chronic inflammation and progressive damage to the liver cells. Although the liver manages to compensate for the continuous loss of functional liver cells, the effort is not enough. Chronic inflammation leads to scarring, which results in liver cirrhosis, failure, and cancer. Keeping in mind that the liver is a vital organ in the human body, hepatitis B is a potentially life-threatening condition that leads to the successive failure of different organs in the body, starting from and focusing on the liver.

What are the early symptoms and signs of hepatitis B?

Newly infected people rarely experience any signs or symptoms. The period they pass through is known as acute hepatitis B, and it may last for up to 6 months. It is a highly infective period that can be either symptomatic or asymptomatic. When symptomatic, it presents as an acute outbreak with nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and abdominal pain. Dark urine and fever are also possible. Finally, a very characteristic sign of liver damage is jaundice, meaning the yellowish discoloration of the skin and the sclera of the eyes. Symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe. Young children are less likely to present any symptoms.

Hepatitis B transmission

HBV is a highly transmissible virus with various routes of transmission. As previously mentioned, you can acquire hepatitis B through sexual activity with infected people. The virus spreads through our body fluids, such as the saliva, vaginal, and seminal fluids. Perinatal transmission is the most popular way of spreading the infection in endemic areas. Infected blood can also transmit HBV to those that receive it. Finally, the virus may spread through tattooing, sharing used needles in the hospital or among drug users, and experiencing surgical procedures or dental care. 

Can I get hepatitis B from kissing?

Although hepatitis B is transmissible through the saliva, there is no valid proof that kissing can give you hepatitis B. Yet, theoretically, it could. As previously mentioned, the routes of HBV transmission are the following:

  • Coming in direct contact with infected blood, even with quantities you cannot see
  • Having unprotected sex with an infected person
  • Getting it from the infected mother

Therefore, if the person you kiss has open sores or other kinds of open injuries and cuts in the mouth, your chances of getting the virus increase. The deeper the kiss, the higher the chances. However, kissing a stranger always carries a couple of risks, so it is up to you to decide if it is a risk worth taking.

Incubation and window period of HBV

The virus is not entirely human-dependant as it can survive outside the human body for about a week. During this time, HBV is active and can still infect those who come in contact with it, for example through tattooing instruments. The average incubation period of HBV is 75 days, but someone may present symptoms within 30 to 180 days. The virus is detectable in the serum of an infected person within 1 to 2 months. Occasionally, the infection is persistent and develops into chronic hepatitis B.

Will everyone develop chronic hepatitis b?

The likelihood of developing chronic hepatitis B depends on the age of infection. Infants and children are at higher risk compared to those infected in adulthood. Adults that got infected with HBV have a 5% chance of developing chronic hepatitis B. From those with chronic hepatitis B, 20-30% will experience liver cirrhosis and cancer. Infection in children under 6 years old, dramatically increases the risk of chronic hepatitis B to 30-50%. Infants have 80-90% chances of developing chronic hepatitis B during their first year of life. 

Hepatitis B treatment

Treatment of hepatitis B varies depending on the state of the infection. If you think you exposed yourself to HBV recently, you should receive an injection of immunoglobulin within 12 hours after exposure, together with the vaccine against HBV, if not received already. In acute hepatitis B, it is crucial to avoid medication. Instead, you should rest and eat properly while drinking lots of fluids. The unnecessary medication would charge your liver even more in its effort to metabolize it. Treatment for chronic hepatitis B consists of the following:

  • Antiviral drugs
  • Interferon injection
  • Liver transplantation

It is a lifelong treatment that protects your liver from complications and the others from acquiring the virus when in contact with you.

Prevention of hepatitis B

The most effective method of prevention is getting vaccinated. However, there are other methods of prevention to reduce your risk of getting infected. Using a condom will reduce but not eliminate the risk of HBV. It is better to know and be sure of the status of your partner, rather than engaging in careless sexual activities. Avoid illegal drugs, but if you can't, never share needles. Getting help to stop using injectable drugs is the best advice. Also, you should search for trustful shops when deciding to get a piercing or a tattoo. Finally, don't forget that there are endemic places in the world that you might increase your risk of exposing yourself to HBV. If you plan to travel anywhere, check if you are vaccinated for HBV first.