Hepatitis B is a type of virus that can infect the liver.
Symptoms can include feeling or being sick, poor appetite, flu-like symptoms or yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice). However, many people don’t realise they have been infected with the virus, because the symptoms may not develop immediately, or even at all.
It takes between 40 and 160 days for any symptoms to develop after exposure to the virus.
How does hepatitis B spread?
Hepatitis B can be spread through blood and body fluids such as semen and vaginal fluids, so it can be caught:
- during unprotected sex, including anal and oral sex
- by sharing needles to inject drugs such as heroin
A mother can also pass on the hepatitis B infection to her newborn baby, but if the baby is vaccinated immediately after birth, the infection can be prevented.
In this country, the people who are most at risk of contracting hepatitis B include the following:
- people who inject drugs
- people who change sexual partners frequently
Acute Hepatitis B
In most cases the hepatitis B virus will only stay in the body for around one to three months. This is known as acute hepatitis B.
The vast majority of people infected with hepatitis B are able to fight off the virus and fully recover from the infection within a couple of months. The infection can be unpleasant to live with, but usually causes no lasting harm.
Chronic Hepatitis B
In around 1 in 20 cases in adults, the virus will stay for six months or longer, usually without causing any noticeable symptoms. This is known as chronic hepatitis B.
Chronic hepatitis B is particularly common in babies and young children: 9 in 10 children infected at birth and around 1 in 5 children infected in early childhood will develop a long-term infection.
People with chronic hepatitis B can still pass the virus on to other people, even if it is not causing any symptoms.
Around 20% of people with chronic hepatitis B will go on to develop scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), which can take 20 years to develop, and around 1 in 10 people with cirrhosis will develop liver cancer.
Therefore it's important to get yourself vaccinated if you fall into one of the high-risk groups for catching hepatitis B.
Who is at increased risk of Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is uncommon in the UK and cases are largely confined to certain groups -
- drug users
- men who have sex with men
- certain ethnic communities (South Asian, African and Chinese).
In contrast, hepatitis B is common in other parts of the world, particularly China, central and south-east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The World Health Organization estimates that hepatitis B is responsible for 600,000 deaths a year worldwide.
How do you get Hepatitis B?
You are at risk of catching hepatitis B if you are exposed to infected blood:
- inject drugs and share needles and other equipment, such as spoons and filters, or you are having a sexual relationship with someone who injects drugs
- have an open wound, cut or scratch, and come into contact with the blood of someone with hepatitis B
- have medical or dental treatment in a country where equipment is not sterilised properly
- work closely with blood (for example, healthcare workers and laboratory technicians are at increased risk of injury when the skin is accidentally punctured by a used needle)
- have a blood transfusion in a country where blood is not tested for hepatitis B
- have a tattoo or body piercing in an unsafe, unlicensed place
- share toothbrushes, razors and towels that are contaminated with infected blood
- You also have an increased risk if you (or your sexual partner) grew up, lived or worked in a part of the world where hepatitis B is relatively common.
All blood donations in the UK are tested for hepatitis B
You are also at risk of catching hepatitis B if you are exposed to infected body fluids:
- if you have sex with an infected person without using a condom.
- Generally, your risk increases if you are sexually active and have unprotected sex with several different partners; this includes unprotected anal and oral sex.
- Prostitutes (both women and men) also have an increased risk of contracting hepatitis B
There is currently no specific treatment for acute hepatitis B, other than using painkillers to relieve symptoms.
Chronic hepatitis B can be treated using a combination of antiviral medications designed to slow the spread of the virus and prevent damage to the liver.
This treatment is available at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
There is a vaccine that is thought to be 95% effective in preventing hepatitis B.
Vaccination would usually only be recommended for people in high-risk groups, such as:
- people who inject drugs or have a sexual partner who injects drugs
- people who change their sexual partner frequently
- people travelling to or from a part of the world where hepatitis B is widespread
- All medical staff who have contact with blood
Pregnant women are also screened for hepatitis B, and if they are infected their baby can be vaccinated shortly after birth to prevent them from also becoming infected.