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Hepatitis B

Hepatitis virus

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B – hep B or HBV – is part of the group of hepatitis viruses that causes inflammation of the liver.

Did you know? Unsafe sex also puts you at risk of HIV

How do you get hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is passed on through unprotected sex (vaginal, anal and oral) and contaminated needles. Occasionally, you can get it from sharing a towel, razor blades or a toothbrush with an infected person if there is infected blood on them.

Using condoms every time you have sex offers some protection against it. Also avoid unlicensed tattoo parlours or acupuncturists.

If you are in a high-risk group for catching hepatitis B (you inject drugs, are a sex worker, or your occupation exposes you to the virus, e.g. paramedic) you can be immunised against it.1

Ask your doctor or healthcare worker for advice.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

Symptoms may appear anytime from two to six months after initial infection, but some people don’t notice symptoms until they become quite severe. For those who do have symptoms, there are two stages of infection; acute and chronic.

Acute (or short-term) symptoms include:

  • feeling sick and/or vomiting
  • aching muscles and joints
  • weight loss
  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite.

Symptoms can last up to two months but most people make a full recovery without treatment and never get it again.

For those who can’t fight off the infection (babies, young children, and people with a weakened immune system because of HIV), the virus moves to the chronic stage.

People at this stage are at higher risk of liver failure, liver disease and cancer of the liver, yet may be unaware of the dangers as symptoms can take years to develop.2

If you think you have been exposed to the virus, see a healthcare professional.

Can I get tested for hepatitis B?

A simple blood test shows whether you have the virus. You may also have a liver function test to determine whether your liver is damaged.3

How is hepatitis B treated?

Most people do not need treatment and recover within a couple of months. Usually, symptoms are managed at home but if the pain becomes more severe, painkillers may be prescribed. You will also be advised to have regular blood tests and physical check-ups.

If you have a chronic infection, your doctor or healthcare worker will prescribe specific treatment to reduce the risk of permanent liver damage and liver cancer.4

Whether you have symptoms or not, avoid having sex until your doctor gives you the all clear to avoid giving the infection to others.

What happens if I don't get treatment for hepatitis B?

Without treatment, about a third of people with chronic hepatitis B will develop a liver disease. An infected mother can also pass the virus on to her baby during childbirth.

  • Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)

Cirrhosis affects about 20% of people with a chronic hepatitis B infection. If you develop cirrhosis, avoid drinking alcohol as it damages the liver.

Antiviral medication can help prevent further damage - however, some people may need a liver transplant.

  • Cancer of the liver

About 10% of those who develop cirrhosis because of hepatitis B will get liver cancer. Treatment for liver cancer depends on the stage of the condition and includes surgery and medication.

Your doctor or healthcare worker will advise you on the best course of treatment.5

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/sarathsasidharan

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Page last reviewed:
01 May 2015
Next review date:
01 November 2016