Conditions & Treatments

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a blood-borne microorganism transmitted by exposure to the hepatitis B virus through infectious body fluids.

Hepatitis B

Illustration of the  anatomy of the biliary system
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What is hepatitis?

The liver is one of the organs that helps with digestion but is not part of the digestive tract. It is the largest organ in the body and carries out many important functions, such as making bile, changing food into energy, and cleaning alcohol and poisons from the blood.

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that sometimes causes permanent damage. It is most commonly caused by viruses, bacteria, certain medicines, or alcohol. It may also be caused by certain diseases, such as autoimmune diseases, metabolic diseases, and congenital (present at birth) abnormalities (for instance, biliary atresia or Wilson disease). Generally, symptoms of hepatitis include fever, jaundice, and an enlarged liver. There are several types of hepatitis.

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B (HBV) is a blood-borne microorganism transmitted by exposure to the hepatitis B virus through infectious body fluids or blood.

Hepatitis B is one of the most frequently reported, vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States. It is estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 deaths will occur each year from a chronic HBV infection, and an estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million people have chronic hepatitis B.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B has a wide range of symptoms. It may be mild, without symptoms, or it may cause chronic hepatitis. In some cases, hepatitis B can lead to full-blown liver failure and death. The following are the most common symptoms of hepatitis B. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea

  • Fatigue (feeling very tired)

  • Vomiting

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

  • Dark urine

  • Clay colored or light colored stools

  • Abdominal (belly) pain

  • Occasionally, skin rashes, arthralgias (joint pain), and arthritis occur

  • Enlarged liver

The symptoms of hepatitis B may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Most children, 4 years or younger, and newly infected immunosuppressed adults are asymptomatic, whereas 30 to 50 percent of people, 5 years and older, have initial signs and symptoms. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is hepatitis B transmitted?

Transmission of hepatitis B virus occurs through blood and body fluid exposure, such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, or saliva. Needle sticks, sharp instruments, sharing items (for example, razors or toothbrushes) and sex with an infected person are primary modes of transmission. Infants may also develop the disease if they are born to a mother who has the virus. Infected children often spread the virus to other children if there is frequent contact or a child has many scrapes or cuts.

Who is at risk for hepatitis B

One out of 20 people in the U.S. will develop hepatitis B at some time during their lives. The following describe persons who are at risk for developing hepatitis B:

  • Children born to mothers who have hepatitis B (the illness may present up to five years after the child is born)

  • Children who are born to mothers who have immigrated from a country where hepatitis B is widespread, such as southeast Asia and China

  • People who live in long-term care facilities or who are disabled

  • People who live in households where another member is infected with the virus

  • People who have a blood-clotting disorder, such as hemophilia

  • People who require dialysis for kidney failure

  • People who may participate in high-risk activities, such as intravenous (IV) drug use and/or unprotected heterosexual or homosexual sexual contact

  • People who have a job that involves contact with human blood

  • People who received blood transfusions or blood products before the early 1990s

A vaccine for hepatitis B does exist and is now widely used for routine childhood immunization.

Prevention of hepatitis B

A vaccine for the prevention of hepatitis B is available. Given in three shots over a period of time, the vaccine is suggested for everyone age 18 years and younger, as well as for adults over age 18 who are at risk for the infection.

How is hepatitis B diagnosed?

In addition to a complete physical examination and laboratory tests for blood and urine, diagnostic procedures for hepatitis B may involve a liver biopsy (a procedure performed to remove tissue or cells from the body for examination under a microscope).

Treatment for hepatitis B

Specific treatment for hepatitis B will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include biological therapy with interferon. Currently, there is no cure for hepatitis B. Prevention is crucial.

Treatment Programs


Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:



Digestive Healthcare Center

  • Liver Center
    Massachusetts General Hospital Liver Center specialists are authorities in the diagnosis and management of all forms of acute and chronic liver disease.
Imaging

  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children

  • Psychology Assessment Center
    The pediatric neuropsychology specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychology Assessment Center provide neuropsychological assessments to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of neurological, medical, genetic and developmental disorders.
  • Pediatric Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Program
    The Pediatric Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children diagnoses and treats infants, children and adolescents with diverse hepatic, biliary and pancreatic disorders.
  • Pediatric Transplant Surgery
    The Pediatric Transplant Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children is a major referral center for organ transplants for children.
Transplant Center

  • Liver Transplant Program
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Transplant Center has performed more adult and pediatric liver transplants than any other center in New England, and has maintained some of the best graft and patient survivals in the country.
  • Transplant Psychiatry Program
    The Transplant Psychiatry Program in the Massachusetts General Hospital Transplant Center is an important part of the comprehensive and life-long care provided to transplant patients and donors.
  • Transplant Infectious Disease Program
    The Transplant Infectious Disease Program, part of the Massachusetts General Hospital Transplant Center, is a part of the life-long care provided to organ, bone marrow and stem cell transplant recipients and others with increased risk for infections.
Gastroenterology

  • Hepatology Program
    The Hepatology Program at the Gastroenterology Division of Massachusetts General Hospital provides expert consultation and ongoing care for patients with acute and chronic liver conditions.

The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.

Innovative care at the Digestive Healthcare Center

Learn more about the latest treatment options for this condition at the Digestive Healthcare Center