What is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is caused by a virus carried in the blood and body fluids of some-one who has the infection. Hepatitis B is also known as ‘Hep B’ or ‘HBV’. The virus infects and damages the liver, although symptoms are not always immediately noticeable.
Hepatitis can be caught by blood to blood contact with someone who has the infection; for example blood entering a wound or a scratch, or by sharing a needle. It can also be passed from mother to child during birth if the baby has contact with an infected mother’s blood during delivery.
Hepatitis B is approximately 50-100 times more infectious than HIV and it is also a virus that lives outside the body for long periods of time (sometimes up to 7 days), so can live on surfaces or objects if they are contaminated with dried blood. Hepatitis B is spread very easily in very tiny quantities so it can be very easy to catch, even if the amount of contact with the infection is very small.
Hepatitis B is very common in certain parts of the world, such as south-east Asia, the Indian subcontinent, South and far East, and Africa. A lot of people from these areas catch the infection in childhood and may not be aware of this. The World Health Organisation believe that approximately one third of the world’s population have been infected by Hepatitis B at some time. In the UK, approximately 180,000 people have chronic infection.
What are the symptoms (signs) of Hepatitis B?
A lot of people won’t have any symptoms and may not even realise they have Hepatitis B infection.
Some people describe feeling a bit ‘flu-like’ at the time of being infected. A lot of the symptoms of Hepatitis B can be quite general: aches and pains, possibly having a slight temperature, sometimes diarrhoea or nausea and because of this, many people often don’t feel unwell enough to see a doctor and may not ever be diagnosed. If noticed, these symptoms often begin to resolve as the body manages the virus.
Some people do become very unwell with the infection and may need urgent hospital care. These people may notice diarrhoea, abdominal pain, dark urine and they may become jaundiced (where the whites of the eyes and sometimes even the skin turn a yellow colour).
Treatment for Hepatitis B
Most people with Hepatitis B do not require any treatment because the majority of people with the infection will naturally clear the virus over approximately 6 months. Any symptoms present usually get better at this time too. Once a person has ‘cleared’ the virus, they are no longer infectious and cannot pass the virus on.
Some people carry the virus in their blood for a long time and despite this can live long and healthy lives. About 1 in 10 people infected with Hepatitis B become chronic carriers.
Over time, usually over many years, the virus can damage the liver, sometimes leading to a liver cancer. People who have Hepatitis B infection are usually monitored carefully, even if they show no symptoms or problems associated with the infection. If the virus is shown to become very active in the blood or starts to cause damage to the liver, treatment is available. This is managed by a specialist hospital clinic.
People who have Hepatitis B infection do not normally have to do anything different in their lives, apart from generally trying to keep themselves well, such as following a healthy diet and avoiding alcohol. Information will also be provided about how to reduce the risk of passing the infection to other people.
Vaccinations are available for people who may be in contact with Hepatitis B; this is routine for health workers, police, carers; and sexual partners, family members and household contacts of people who have Hepatitis B infection.
Our Devon Sexual Health clinics provide free vaccinations to certain risk groups too: these include any sexual partner of someone who has Hepatitis B infection, and groups who are more likely to come into contact with the infection: men who have sex with men, female contacts of men who have sex with men (women who have bisexual partners), sex workers, people living with HIV ,and people who have partners who are from areas in the world where Hepatitis B is common (such as south-east Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle and Far East, Southern Europe and Africa).
Anyone who tests positive for Hepatitis B in our clinics will be given care and support around this diagnosis, so they know what to do next.
What should I do if I think I have Hepatitis B?
A simple blood test that can be performed to see if a person has Hepatitis B infection.
If you are worried about Hepatitis B or think you may have been exposed to any blood borne virus, come to one of our clinics and speak to a doctor or nurse about your concerns. After catching Hepatitis B, it can take up to 3 months for the body to show whether Hepatitis B infection is present, so occasionally clinics may recommend a follow-up test .
However if you think you have been very recently exposed, don’t wait! We would always say come and talk to a member of our team to discuss your worries as soon as possible as there may be other things we can do to help. You can also phone for advice.
How can I avoid getting Hepatitis B?
Practise safe sex by using a condom for any vaginal, anal or oral sex with new or unknown partners. Covering sex toys with condoms and washing them carefully between uses will also reduce the chance of infection.
If you inject drugs, always use clean needles and never share any injecting equipment, including foils, spoons or syringes. Remember: Hepatitis B can live outside of the body for up to 7 days, so even trying to decontaminate (wash) shared works may not be effective and could put you at risk of catching the infection.
If you think you are in a risk group for catching the infection, for example you are a man who has sex with men, a sex worker, or someone who has sexual partners from areas in the world where Hepatitis B infection is common (such as south-east Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle and Far East, Southern Europe and Africa), or if you know your sexual partner has Hepatitis B, attend one of our clinics and ask about free Hepatitis B vaccinations. Successful vaccination can provide complete protection against catching Hepatitis B.