Chronic hepatitis B occurs when the body cannot eliminate the hepatitis B virus following an acute infection. Having chronic (or lifelong) hepatitis B can increase a person’s risk of developing advanced liver disease, such as cirrhosis.
Diagnosing chronic hepatitis B can require specialized tests. Typically, doctors consider hepatitis B to be chronic when a person tests positive for the hepatitis B virus for more than 6 months after their first positive blood test.
While there is no cure for chronic hepatitis B, medications and other interventions are available to help keep the amount of virus in the body low and prevent further damage to the liver.
Read on to learn more about chronic hepatitis B, including symptoms, causes, and how doctors treat it.
Many people with chronic hepatitis B do not experience lots of symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they can include:
- low-grade fever
- loss of appetite
- generally being unwell
- discomfort in the upper abdomen
For those with chronic hepatitis B, new or worsening symptoms may be a sign of advanced liver disease.
- easy bruising and bleeding
- swelling of legs, ankles, and feet
- fluid accumulation (ascites) in the abdomen
- dark-colored urine
- jaundice, or yellowing of skin and eyes
People experiencing new or worsening symptoms should seek help from a healthcare professional.
Hepatitis B spreads when blood, semen, or other bodily fluids containing the virus enters the body of a person who is not infected or is unvaccinated.
- birth (spread from a mother with hepatitis B to their newborn)
- sex with a partner who has hepatitis B
- sharing needles or syringes
- sharing a toothbrush or razor with someone with hepatitis B
- direct contact with open sores, wounds, or the blood of someone with hepatitis B
- accidental contact with blood from someone who has the hepatitis B infection via sharp medical instruments
Doctors consider hepatitis B to be chronic when a person tests positive for the virus for more than six months after their first positive blood test.
How does it become chronic?
Chronic hepatitis B generally indicates that the immune system cannot completely eradicate the virus, so it remains in the blood and liver.
A person’s age at initial infection can play a role in whether hepatitis B will become chronic. The younger a person is when the virus infects them, the greater their risk of developing a chronic infection.
Doctors may suspect that a person has a chronic hepatitis B infection if:
- they already have a diagnosis of acute hepatitis B
- they experience symptoms
- routine blood tests reveal that liver enzymes, such as aminotransferase, are high
Confirming a diagnosis of chronic hepatitis B requires specialized tests. These typically involve:
detectinghepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) in the blood
- measuring the viral load, which is the amount of virus present in the blood
- measuring antibody responses to the virus — for example, the response of the hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc)
A liver biopsy may help determine the extent of damage to the liver.
- tenofovir alafenamide (Vemlidy)
- tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Viread)
- entecavir (Baraclude)
Not everyone with hepatitis B requires medication. Some people may need to take medication intermittently. Treatment for those at greater risk of developing liver complications is typically advisable.
Seeking help from a liver specialist is beneficial when chronic hepatitis B has led to cirrhosis. They will be able to perform further tests and provide advice on the best treatment course.
Treatment can include medications and medical procedures. A liver transplant may be necessary in cases of liver failure.
Additional steps that people with hepatitis B can take to improve their outlook include:
- seeking medical help when they receive a diagnosis
- getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B
- avoiding drinking alcohol
- maintaining a healthy and balanced diet
- checking with a doctor or other health professional before taking any new medications because some can cause liver problems
There is no cure for hepatitis B, although there are effective treatments that can suppress virus production and reduce liver damage.
Once the acute phase of infection develops into chronic hepatitis B, it is typically a lifelong condition. However, viral suppression means that the virus becomes
Chronic hepatitis B is typically a lifelong condition. The chance that an acute infection will progress to a chronic one is highest in infancy — around 9 in 10 infants who have the hepatitis B virus go on to develop a chronic infection.
Not everyone with the condition will develop symptoms, but these may appear as liver function deteriorates. If a person develops cirrhosis, they may experience abdominal swelling, jaundice, and other serious symptoms.
Doctors can use specialized tests to confirm a diagnosis of chronic hepatitis B, including detecting HBsAg. While there is no cure, people with chronic hepatitis B often have long symptom-free periods. The treatment course may involve antiviral medications and making certain lifestyle changes.