Hepatitis B

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. The liver is in the top right corner of the abdominal area. Hepatitis B is a blood-borne virus that affects the liver; it is sometimes called ‘Hep B’. Hepatitis B can also be sexually transmitted. Hepatitis B infection can be mild or severe and can last for weeks or years.

Signs and symptoms

In the early stage of hepatitis B infection, symptoms may include no appetite, slight pains in the tummy, nausea, vomiting, jaundice (a condition where the whites of eyes and skin turn yellow), rash, painful joints and mild fever. Some people develop a mild flu-like illness. Other people have no symptoms at all in the early phase of the infection.

Most adults recover completely. They can’t become infected with hepatitis B again.

However, some people infected with hepatitis B will not get rid of the virus and will develop a chronic (or lifelong) infection. A person is diagnosed as having chronic hepatitis B if the virus remains in their blood for more than six months.

People with chronic hepatitis B often don’t feel sick, but can develop serious liver diseases, including liver failure and liver cancer, 20 or more years after first getting hepatitis B. People with chronic hepatitis B can infect other people, even if they feel well and don’t have any symptoms.

Risk factors

Hepatitis B is mainly spread through direct contact with infected blood. But you can also be infected through contact with other body fluids like semen and vaginal fluids.

You can get hepatitis B:

  • from contact with a tiny amount of blood, too small to see
  • by having vaginal, oral or anal sex with a person with chronic hepatitis B if you don’t use a condom or dam
  • unsterile tattooing or body piercing
  • by sharing needles, syringes and other drug injecting equipment with a person with chronic hepatitis B
  • during pregnancy and childbirth, from a mother with chronic infection to her baby.

Treatment

People with chronic hepatitis B should have their liver function monitored regularly (every 6-12 months) by their GP. If you have hepatitis B, it is important to talk about treatment options with your doctor. There is treatment available for chronic hepatitis B that can reduce liver damage.

Immunisation

There is a vaccine to prevent hepatitis B infection. You need three immunisations over six months (although the immunisations can sometimes be given over a shorter time). People who are at high risk of the virus, such as people who inject drugs, should be tested and immunised for hepatitis B.

Since 2000, every baby born in Australia can receive a free hepatitis B vaccine at birth and further doses at 2, 4 and 6 months of age.

For more information about hepatitis B, contact Hepatitis WA on (08) 9328 8538 Metro (1800 800 070 Country free call) or info@hepatitiswa.com.au or go to the Hepatitis WA website (external site). For more services use our Find a Service feature

Prevention

  • the best way to protect yourself against hepatitis B is to get immunised if you have not been immunised already
  • don't inject drugs. If you choose to inject drugs, avoid sharing needles, syringes or any drug injecting equipment. Always use your own new, sterile needles and syringes and sterile water. Also use your own spoon, swabs, filters, and tourniquets. Wash your hands or wipe your fingers with a new alcohol swab before and after injecting yourself or another person. You can get needles and syringes from most chemists, needle and syringe exchanges, and at country hospitals after hours. Go to Healthy WA (external site) for more information
  • practice safer sex – use a condom or dam and lubricant. The risk increases with the number of sexual partners, anal sex and/or sex during a woman’s period.
  • before considering any body art (such as tattooing or piercing) make sure the body artist uses only sterilised equipment, and new razors, inks, and needles each time.
  • don’t share personal hygiene items, such as razors, combs, nail brushes, and toothbrushes as they can carry traces of blood.
  • clean and cover any bleeding cuts and grazes immediately.

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