Doctor's Notes

Growing Older with Hepatitis B: Prevention and Precautions Still Matter

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This September we are celebrating seniors for Healthy Aging Month. The Hepatitis B Foundation is doing a series on Growing Older with Hepatitis B, and we have adapted part two of their series. If a senior you know or love is living with hepatitis B, make sure to share!

Most people living with chronic hepatitis B today are over age 50, and like their younger counterparts, they need to keep themselves healthy and prevent spreading hepatitis B to their sexual partners, housemates, and neighbors.

Remember to take care of yourself. Hepatitis B can still affect your health even if you are older. A hepatitis B “carrier” can still get sick. Remember to see your doctor every year for a checkup, which includes checking on hepatitis B. You may need blood tests to see if the virus is still active and affecting your liver and an ultrasound to make sure there is no liver cancer or other liver problems developing. Your doctor can also make sure there are no other illnesses or medications affecting your liver and to see if you need any vaccinations (shots).

You’re never too old for safe sex: You may not have to worry about pregnancy anymore, but you still need to protect yourself and your partner against diseases that can be transmitted through sex, such as hepatitis B. Using a condom is important, because many seniors have not been immunized against hepatitis B. Your partner should be checked for hepatitis B—there is a vaccine available if he or she is not immune.

Seniors see doctors more often than young people, but they are less likely to discuss sex and ask about (or use) safe sex practices. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), syphilis, chlamydia and HIV infections are rising again, and about one-quarter of newly reported HIV infections are in people age 55 and older.

If you live with hepatitis B, make sure you practice safe sex and your partner is vaccinated.

You’re never too old for the hepatitis B vaccine. However, as our immune systems age, our response to immunizations can weaken. The hepatitis B vaccine is effective, but sometimes our aging immune systems don’t produce enough antibodies after vaccination to protect us.

If you or your partner are getting immunized against hepatitis B, about one or two months after you get the last dose, see your doctor and get tested for hepatitis B antibodies (called titers). If you don’t have enough antibodies to fight infection, you can get a fourth vaccine (booster) shot or you can get the entire three doses again. In the meantime, use safe sex to protect you and your partner.

Make sure all medical equipment is sterile. As we all know it’s easy to spread colds and germs when you live with people in close quarters, but spreading hepatitis B can occur when health care workers re-use glucose monitors, which check blood-sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Each year, the CDC reports outbreaks of hepatitis B in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Remember, the hepatitis B virus can live for several days in dried blood on hard surfaces, so a little will go a long way if it’s on medical equipment used to poke or probe or collect blood.

What can you do? If you or a family resident has hepatitis B, remind health care staff who work in these facilities to be sure to practice universal precautions and make sure medical equipment is never re-used or shared.

Don’t assume your specialist knows about your hepatitis B. As you age and develop illnesses that require you to see specialists, make sure they know you have hepatitis B.

We all like to think doctors look carefully at our medical records, but sometimes information gets missed. Why should a specialist know about your hepatitis B? Because some of the medications they may prescribe can hurt our livers and weaken our immune systems.

For example, chemotherapy and other immune-suppressing drugs deliberately weaken our immune systems in order to fight cancer or rheumatoid arthritis. But when our immune systems weaken, hepatitis B can reactivate, resulting in the virus growing again and causing liver damage. To prevent this, doctors can prescribe antiviral medication to keep the hepatitis B virus under control during treatment with immune-suppressing drugs.

Make sure your specialists know about your hepatitis B, and ask them to monitor your viral load and liver health if you require immune-suppressing medication. It’s important to protect your health and speak up at every age.

Adapted from the Hepatitis B Foundation www.hepb.org. To read more blogs about hepatitis B, visit http://hepbblog.org. The Hepatitis B Foundation is a national non-profit organization dedicated to finding a cure and improving the quality of life for those affected by hepatitis B worldwide.

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Author: Charles B. Wang Community Health Center

The Charles B. Wang Community Health Center is a nonprofit and federally qualified health center, established in 1971. Our mission is to eliminate disparities in health, improve health status, and expand access to the medically underserved with a focus on Asian Americans. Our vision is to strive to be a Center for Excellence by being a leader in providing quality, culturally relevant, and affordable health care and education, and advocacy on behalf of the health and social needs of the medically underserved with a focus on Asian Americans. We believe that everyone should have the same opportunity to achieve their highest level of health. Learn more at www.cbwchc.org.

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