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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(1):86

What is hepatitis B virus?

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) infects the liver. You can get HBV infection from blood and body fluids such as saliva and semen. If a pregnant woman is infected with HBV, her baby also may be infected at birth.

How can I tell if I have HBV infection?

Usually, you can't tell. Most people don't have any symptoms. You may feel tired, your stomach may hurt sometimes, or your skin may look yellow. Rarely, an infected person may get sick enough to go to the hospital.

What happens after HBV infection?

Most adults get better in a few weeks or a few months. Some adults (and more children and babies) feel like they are getting better, but the virus stays in their liver. These people have chronic HBV infection.

What health problems can chronic HBV infection cause?

Children and adults with chronic HBV infection can look healthy for years, but their liver cells are being slowly damaged. If enough damage happens, they get cancer of the liver or cirrhosis, which causes scars on the liver. (Say this: sir-row-sis). These diseases can be fatal.

How can I protect my liver if I have chronic HBV infection?

Don't drink alcohol. See your doctor regularly. Tell your doctor about all the medicines you are taking, including over-the-counter and herbal medicines. Some medicines can hurt your liver. Depending on the results of your blood tests, you may be able to take medicines to help stop the virus from causing more liver damage.

How can HBV infection be prevented?

Don't share needles or have sex with a lot of people.

There is a vaccine to prevent HBV infection. Most children in the United States get this vaccine now.

What if I have HBV infection and get pregnant?

Many women don't find out they have chronic HBV infection until they are tested during pregnancy. If you find that you are infected, your baby should be given hepatitis B immune globulin and the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine before you go home from the hospital. This will lower your baby's chance of being infected with the hepatitis virus.

Breastfeeding is safe. You will not pass HBV to your baby in breast milk.

When should my baby get the hepatitis B vaccine?

The first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine should be given at birth, followed by a dose at one month of age and another dose at six months of age. Your baby should get the birth dose even if your doctor plans on giving your child combination vaccines that include the hepatitis B vaccine later on.

Is the vaccine safe?

Yes. Large studies have shown no long-term side effects.

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