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Viral Hepatitis

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What is hepatitis B?

for Veterans and the Public

What is hepatitis B?

The term "hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver. When the liver is inflamed, it can have a harder time doing some of its jobs. (See Understanding the Liver.) A hepatitis virus is one that lives in liver cells and causes inflammation. Different hepatitis viruses have been given different names, such as A, B, and C.

Hepatitis B is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. It results from infection with the hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis B can be either "acute" or "chronic."

Acute hepatitis B virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to HBV. Acute infection can--but does not always--lead to chronic infection.

Chronic hepatitis B virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the virus remains in a person's body.

The younger a person is when infected with hepatitis B virus, the greater his or her chance of developing chronic hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B virus is contained in blood and body fluids. It is not contained in food or water. It is passed from person to person when blood, semen, or other body fluid infected with the virus enters the body of a person who is not infected. People can become infected with the virus during activities such as:

  • Birth (spread from an infected mother to her baby during birth)
  • Sex with an infected partner
  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment
  • Sharing items such as razors or toothbrushes with an infected person
  • Direct contact with the blood or open sores of an infected person