• Clinical science

Hepatitis B


Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a common viral infection worldwide and can be transmitted sexually, parenterally, or perinatally. After an incubation period of 1–6 months, most patients present with an asymptomatic or mild inflammation of the liver, which usually resolves spontaneously within a few weeks or months. However, 5% of all adult patients and 90% of infants born to a hepatitis B-positive mother develop chronic hepatitis. Chronically infected individuals may be either asymptomatic carriers or exhibit ongoing hepatic inflammation with an increased risk of liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Serologic testing, which is decisive for diagnosing HBV, initially involves measurement of HBs antigen. An increase in serum anti‑HBs (also known as seroconversion) is a sign of recovery or successful immunization. Chronic hepatitis is indicated by persistently elevated HBs antigen levels, as well as high HBV DNA and transaminase levels in cases of persistent liver inflammation. Treatment of acute hepatitis B consists of supportive measures. In the case of fulminant hepatitis, liver transplantation may be necessary. For chronic hepatitis B, pegylated interferon alpha and nucleoside/nucleotide analogs (e.g., tenofovir) are used to reduce viral replication and infectivity. Prophylactic immunization with a recombinant vaccine is recommended for all age groups. Other preventative measures include post-exposure prophylaxis for newborns of hepatitis B-positive mothers and unvaccinated individuals with recent exposure to those who are hepatitis B-positive.


  • More than 248 million people worldwide are chronically infected.
  • ∼ 600,000 deaths annually from HBV-related liver disease
  • High prevalence in Asia, Africa, and the Amazon basin
  • United States
    • In 2014, there were 20,000 new hepatitis B infections and ∼ 2 million people with chronic hepatitis B.
    • Acute hepatitis B has declined by ∼ 82% after the introduction of the hepatitis B vaccine in 1991.


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.




The frequency and patterns of transmission vary worldwide.

  1. Sexual
  2. Parenteral
    • Needlestick injury
    • Contaminated instruments and shared needles
    • Contaminated blood products
  3. Perinatal

High-risk groups for HBV infection

  • IV drug users
  • Individuals whose close contacts have chronic HBV infection
  • Infants of HBV-positive mothers
  • Professions with exposure to human blood and/or seminal/vaginal fluids
  • Individuals with multiple sex partners or sex partners of HBV-positive people
  • Patients undergoing hemodialysis; organ or blood transfusion recipients
  • Hepatitis C virus (HCV) or HIV-positive individuals

Individuals whose medical history indicates a high risk for HBV infection should be tested!



Acute infection

Hepatocytes infected by the hepatitis B virus express viral peptides on their surfaces lymphocytes recognize HBV-derived peptides and become activated (CD8+ cytotoxic T cells) → lymphocytes attack liver cells (cellular immune response) → hepatic inflammation with destruction of hepatocytes

Chronic infection

If clearance of the virus fails


Clinical features

Incubation period

  • 1–6 months

Acute infection

Acute HBV infections are defined as infections that were acquired in the past 6 months.

Recovery rates in adults are very good, with less than 5% of cases progressing to chronic infections. In contrast, the risk of developing chronic hepatitis is considerably higher in infants infected perinatally (90%) and young children (20–50%)!

Chronic infection

Chronic HBV infections are defined as infections persisting for more than 6 months with detection of HBsAg and possibly symptoms of liver damage.

  • Most patients are inactive, non-contagious carriers.
  • Potential reactivation of chronic inactive hepatitis: may be asymptomatic , imitate acute hepatitis, or result in hepatic failure
  • Cirrhosis, stigmata of chronic liver disease (25% of cases)
  • Extrahepatic manifestations (10–20% of cases)



Diagnostically relevant virus antigens, DNA, and antibodies

HBV antigen/DNA Description Corresponding antibodies
  • Protein on the surface of HBV; first evidence of infection
  • Anti‑HBc
    • Anti-HBC IgM indicates recent infection with HBV (≤ 6 months)
    • Anti-HBc IgG indicates resolved or chronic infections
  • Protein secreted by the virus that indicates viral replication and infectivity

Hepatitis B serology

HBsAg Anti-HBs


Anti-HBe Anti-HBc HBV DNA Transaminases
Acute infection IgM ∅–↑ (ALT > AST)

Window period

∅–↑ IgM first, then IgG ∅–↑ (ALT > AST)
Resolved prior infection IgG

Virus persistence (chronic infection)

Active chronic infection


HBV DNA > 2000 IU/mL

Normal or ↑

Inactive chronic infection

IgG HBV DNA ≤ 2000 IU/mL Normal
  • Testing algorithm
    • Screening: HBsAg (detectable 1–5 months after infection) and anti‑HBc IgM
    • If HBsAg is positive → measure HBeAg and HBV DNA; ;
    • Seroconversion of HBsAg to anti‑HBs indicates acute hepatitis resolution.

Additional tests

Seroconversion of HBsAg to anti‑HBs indicates immune clearance of HBV!

HBeAg indicates Infectivity due to viral Existence(/persistence)!


Acute viral hepatitis

Chronic viral hepatitis

Ground glass hepatocytes are only present in HBV, while piecemeal necrosis, fibrous septa, and periportal infiltrates also occur in other types of chronic hepatitis!




Differential diagnoses

Differential diagnosis of viral hepatitis
Pathogen Viral family Transmission route Incubation period (days) Symptoms/Signs Serological diagnosis Treatment Prevention Complications
Hepatitis A virus (HAV)
  • Fecal-oral
  • 15–50
  • Acute hepatitis: fever, malaise, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal pain, jaundice, AST/ALT
  • Children < 6 years often have no symptoms
  • Supportive
  • Full recovery within ∼ 3 months
  • Does not become chronic
Hepatitis B virus (HBV)
  • 30–180
  • Safe sex; screening of blood products; use of sterile instruments and needles
  • HBV vaccination, post-exposure prophylaxis
Hepatitis C virus (HCV)
  • 14–180
  • Often asymptomatic
  • Acute hepatitis (see above)
  • Stigmata of cirrhosis in chronic cases
  • Use of sterile instruments and needles; safe sex
  • No vaccination for HCV available
Hepatitis D virus (HDV)
  • Coinfection: 45–160
  • Superinfection: 14–56
  • Peginterferon-α
  • Prevention of HBV infection (see “Prevention” below)

Hepatitis E virus (HEV)

  • Fecal-oral
  • 15–64
  • Acute: supportive

Hepatitis viruses A and E usually only cause AcutE hepatitis!

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.


Acute hepatitis B

Chronic hepatitis B



Hepatitis D virus infection

Acute liver failure

Long-term complications of hepatitis B


We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.



Special patient groups

Perinatal hepatitis B

Whereas maternal hepatitis B; infections rarely cause fetal complications during pregnancy, the risk of perinatal transmission is high, especially if the maternal viral load is increased. If an infant becomes infected, the risk of developing chronic hepatitis is 90%.

Interferon therapy is contraindicated during pregnancy!