Risk of hepatitis B and liver cancer: symptoms, treatment, prevention

Contracting the hepatitis B virus (HBV) can lead to a serious liver disease known as hepatitis B infection. While the exact complications of this disease depend on the type of hepatitis B infection, liver cancer is one of the risks associated with long-term infection with this virus.

In fact, experts believe that more than half of all liver cancers worldwide are attributed to viral infections of the liver. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hepatitis B in the United States accounts for approximately 15% cases of liver cancer.

The development of liver cancer from hepatitis B is a serious disease that requires careful medical treatment and continuous monitoring.

This article will take a closer look at hepatitis B, its link to liver cancer, and the symptoms to look out for.

Hepatitis B (“hepatitis B”) is a type of viral infection that can cause severe swelling (inflammation) and damage to the liver. You can become infected with hepatitis B through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as an infected person’s blood or semen.

Hepatitis B can cause short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) infections. Acute infections last up to 6 months. Chronic infections last longer.

Acute hepatitis B can lead to liver failure, but this is considered rare.

Chronic hepatitis B, on the other hand, carries a higher risk of complications due to long-term inflammation. These complications can include:

The risk of developing chronic hepatitis B due to HBV depends strongly on your age. According to CDCapproximately 90% of HBV-infected infants develop chronic infections, while chronic hepatitis B affects 2% to 6% of HBV-infected adults.

Hepatitis B symptoms

Hepatitis B does not always cause symptoms. In acute cases, symptoms may develop 2 to 5 months after getting an infection, while chronic hepatitis B may cause no symptoms for years after getting an infection.

Possible symptoms of hepatitis B infection include:

  • yellowish eyes or skin (jaundice)
  • dark yellow urine
  • fever
  • unusual or unexplained tiredness
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea or vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • articular pain
  • gray or clay stools

It is important to see a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

It is also important to have regular liver screenings. This is because you may not develop any noticeable symptoms of chronic hepatitis B for many years after getting an infection.

Talk to a doctor about the best screening options for you based on your risk factors.

Having hepatitis B increases the risk of liver cancer. Liver cancer can develop from long-term inflammation and damage caused by chronic HBV infection. When your liver remains in a long-term state of inflammation, cirrhosis can develop.

As scar tissue invades the liver, the DNA of healthy cells can also change, allowing malignant (cancerous) tumors to grow.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a primary form of liver cancer. It occurs in about a third people with hepatitis B. It is also one of the main causes cancer-related deaths worldwide.

While liver cancer itself is on the decline in the United States, it is still a deadly cancer. According to CDC, approximately 25,000 new cases of liver cancer are diagnosed each year in men and 11,000 new cases in women. Of these, approximately 19,000 men and 9,000 women die from the disease.

Liver cancer alone has a 5-year survival rate of 10% to 14%, reports the Hepatitis B Foundation. Early detection and treatment can dramatically increase this rate to 60% to 70%.

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

Liver cancer and hepatitis B share similar symptoms, such as jaundice, unexplained fatigue, and loss of appetite. See a doctor if you notice symptoms such as:

  • abdominal swelling
  • pain or discomfort, or a visible lump below your right rib cage
  • pain along the right shoulder blade or in the back
  • unexplained weight loss
  • yellow skin or eyes
  • easy bruising or bleeding

Other risk factors for liver cancer

Besides chronic hepatitis B, other factors can increase your risk of liver cancer:

While treatment for acute hepatitis B involves only symptom relief, chronic hepatitis B requires antiviral treatment. This can help reduce the overall viral load in the body as well as subsequent liver complications.

Antiviral treatments for hepatitis B are usually given by mouth. Options include:

  • entecavir (Baraclude)
  • tenofovir alafenamide (Vemlidy)
  • tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Viread)

In some cases, a doctor may also prescribe antiviral injections.

In addition, hepatitis B requires regular monitoring for cirrhosis and the possible development of liver cancer. A specialist may recommend blood tests along with an ultrasound to check for cirrhosis or subsequent liver cancer.

If you develop liver cancer as a result of hepatitis B, a doctor may recommend a liver transplant.

You can reduce your risk of getting hepatitis B by avoiding contact with bodily fluids. For example, do not share needles or drug injection equipment. Use a barrier method, such as a condom, during penetrative sex.

It is also important to speak with a doctor to find out if you are up to date on your hepatitis B vaccinations.

The CDC recommends that the following groups receive HBV vaccines:

  • all infants
  • unvaccinated children under 19
  • adults aged 19 to 59
  • adults over 60 considered high risk
  • any child or adult who may be considered high risk

If you think you have been exposed to HBV, talk to a doctor about getting the hepatitis B vaccine. They may also recommend taking a medicine called hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG) in the 24 hours of exposure.

If a doctor diagnoses chronic hepatitis B, be sure to get regular liver screening tests.

Liver cancer is a complication that can develop from chronic hepatitis B. This happens due to severe scarring in the liver from long-term infection, which can increase the risk of developing cancerous tumors.

The earlier hepatitis B is detected, the better the outcomes for HBV and liver cancer. Also, if you test positive for hepatitis B, a doctor will want to monitor your liver for any potential complications.

Talk to a doctor about hepatitis B vaccinations and other preventative measures. Also alert them to any new and unusual symptoms that could indicate a liver problem.

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