Hepatitis B

Is a virus that can infect and damage the liver.

How is it passed on?

Hepatitis B is carried in the blood. It is usually transmitted through blood to blood contact. Examples include:

  • Sharing needles when injecting drugs
  • A cut in the skin that comes into contact with infected blood
  • Use of unsterilized equipment when getting a tattoo/body piercing
  • Sharing razors or toothbrushes that are contaminated with infected blood.

It can be transmitted through sex, although this is rare and can be prevented by using a condom. However, it is 50 - 100 times more infectious than HIV.

A mother can pass a Hepatitis B infection to her newborn baby, but the infection can be prevented if the baby is vaccinated immediately after birth.

Symptoms

During the early stage of infection there may not be any symptoms. If symptoms do develop, this is usually within the first six months after infection. Those who do get symptoms may experience:

Most people clear the virus after this initial stage and are then immune to the infection. These people will not be infectious. You can only be certain you have Hepatitis if you have a test.

Long term effects

Some people’s body cannot clear the virus and so they will develop a long term infection called chronic Hepatitis. Hepatitis B can lead to problems with your liver, including scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), often years after catching the infection.

Treatment

You should seek immediate medical advice if you think you have been exposed to Hepatitis B. It is possible to prevent infection with treatment, but to be most effective it should be given in the first 48 hours after exposure.

Hepatitis B can be managed at home in the early stages, using over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol. You may be prescribed codeine if the pain is more severe.

If you have chronic Hepatitis B, you will be symptom-free for much of the time. However, you may need to take medication to prevent liver damage and have regular tests done. There are now very effective medications that can suppress the virus over many years.

Telling your partner

If you are diagnosed with Hepatitis B you should tell anyone who you may have had blood to blood contact with, or unprotected sex with, since you became infected. In some cases this may be hard to work out, so it is best to discuss the risks to others with your doctor. Any contacts may have the virus without knowing it, so it is important for them to get tested.

How to avoid Hepatitis B:

  • Never share any drug-injecting equipment with other people (not just needles, but also syringes, spoons and filters)
  • Don’t get tattoos or piercings from unlicensed places
  • Don't share razors, toothbrushes or towels that might be contaminated with blood
  • Use a condom, especially with a new partner, for anal and oral sex.

Vaccinations

Hepatitis B vaccine is available on the NHS, and is recommended for people who are at risk of infection. This includes people who inject drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and people whose partners or close family have the virus.

Questions?

Test results are most accurate four weeks after exposure.

Your GP, a sexual health clinic or occupational health department (if your occupation puts you at risk of infection).

Side effects are rare, but contact the person who gave you the vaccine at once if you have a serious side effect such as:

  • Fever, sore throat, and headache with a severe blistering, peeling, and red skin rash
  • Irritability
  • Fast or pounding heartbeats
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.

Less serious side effects include:

  • Redness, pain, swelling, or a lump where the injection was given
  • Headache, dizziness
  • Low fever
  • Joint pain, body aches
  • Tired feeling
  • Nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, constipation, diarrhoea.

No, you will need to check your levels of immunity some years after vaccination. The health care professional who gives you the vaccine will advise you when your immunity levels need checking.

Antiviral medication usually acts to prevent a virus from multiplying.

No, not in men or women.

They will be able to tell if you have symptoms of infection but not if you don’t. However, it is important that you tell your partner since you may pass or have passed the infection to them.

Go to a sexual health clinic if you have unusual symptoms that persist for more than a few days. You can also get tested for Hepatitis B at your GP or a drug treatment service. The clinician will take a simple blood test.