Hepatitis B (or hep B) is a form of hepatitis caused by a virus that infects the liver. It's easy to pass on during sex or by sharing injecting equipment. Most people who get it make a full recovery, but for a minority it can be more serious.
Hepatitis B symptoms
Many people who get hepatitis B notice no symptoms, or have ones so mild that they're easily missed. But after some weeks or months the infection can cause:
- loss of appetite
- nausea or vomiting
- extreme tiredness
- stomach pain
- jaundice, where your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow, your urine turns dark and your faeces (poo) turn pale.
Symptoms can last for several weeks and it can take months to get back to normal.
Most people make a full recovery but up to 1 in 20 become ‘carriers’ with chronic (long-term) infection. They usually feel fine but stay infectious to others, with a small risk of going on to develop liver disease.
Around 1 in 100 people get a more serious illness which can be fatal if it's not treated.
How it's passed on
The virus can be passed on in these body fluids:
- vaginal secretions.
It's passed on through:
- oral, vaginal or anal sex without a condom
- sharing sex toys
- sharing injecting drug equipment, such as needles and syringes, which can carry infected blood
- childbirth, from a mother to her baby.
It can be found in saliva but there are no proven cases of it being passed on through kissing. Infections from bites are rare.
Avoid sharing razors, toothbrushes, nail scissors, hair clippers and tweezers because traces of blood on them can pass on hepatitis B. This includes dried blood as the virus can survive for at least a week outside of the body.
How can I protect myself and others?
You can protect yourself by getting vaccinated. This is especially important if you belong to one of the high-risk groups. You're high risk if you:
- have close contact with someone with the infection
- are a gay man
- inject drugs
- travel to parts of the world where the infection is common.
There is a vaccine which can protect you against both hepatitis A and B.
If you're in a high-risk group for hepatitis B you can usually get vaccinated for free by your GP or at your sexual health clinic.
You may need a booster injection of the vaccination after 5 years.
If you have hepatitis B, tell people you live with or recently had sex with to urgently ask their doctor about vaccination. Avoid sex until told you're no longer infectious.
Although not as effective as being vaccinated, you can also cut the risk by:
- using condoms for penetrative sex
- a latex barrier (such as a condom cut into a square) for rimming.
If you're a carrier, you may want to tell a partner and explain that you're infectious. That allows them to decide if they want to take precautions (such as getting vaccinated) or are happy to take any risk.
That way they cannot accuse you of infecting them without them knowing the risk was there.
If you're not vaccinated against hepatitis B and are exposed to the virus, there’s a treatment which may stop you being infected. Hepatitis B immunoglobulin (HBIG) is an injection of antibodies. It's best to get it within 48 hours of exposure – you'll be vaccinated at the same time.
What can I do if I think I have hepatitis B?
Cases are generally diagnosed by GPs, not sexual health clinics. If you had sex with someone recently or you share your house with others, they can be vaccinated to stop them getting the infection – they should see a doctor straight away.
Avoid sex until you are told you’re no longer infectious or until your partners have been vaccinated.
A blood test will confirm whether you have the virus.
Hepatitis B treatment
In most cases no treatment is needed for acute hepatitis B. It may take a while for you to recover and you may want to take some time off work.
You should also:
- avoid recreational drugs to allow your liver to get better
- avoid alcohol until your liver recovers
- avoid smoking because of the health problems it causes
- eat a healthy balanced diet.
If you have chronic hepatitis B, you may need treatment to slow down the replication of the virus. However, treatment cannot usually cure chronic hepatitis B. A small number of carriers go on to get liver disease (and a small number of those get liver cancer), and may need a liver transplant.
If your body clears hepatitis B, you’re immune and cannot get it again – but you can still get other types of hepatitis.