What is hepatitis B?
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Heavy alcohol use, some medications, toxins, certain medical conditions, and viral infections can all cause hepatitis.
Hepatitis B is liver inflammation caused by infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). It can cause both acute (short term) and chronic (long term) illness. Acute hepatitis B is a short term infection that occurs within the first six months after someone is exposed to the virus. Symptoms caused by hepatitis B can be mild with few symptoms in some people, while others can experience severe disease lasting for weeks or months. Some people develop chronic hepatitis B and become carriers with the virus in their blood and other body fluids for the rest of their lives. People with chronic hepatitis B infection are at risk of developing long-term liver problems such as scarring of the liver and liver cancer. The likelihood that hepatitis B will develop from an acute infection into a chronic infection depends on the age of the person infected. The younger a person is when infected with hepatitis B virus, the greater the chance of developing a chronic infection. Approximately 90% of infected infants will develop chronic infection. About 95% of adults will recover completely and do not develop chronic hepatitis B.
Some people are at higher risk of getting infected such as people who use illicit drugs and people who have unprotected sex with someone who is infected.
Hepatitis B is a reportable disease in Ontario.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?
Up to 50% of infected people have no symptoms and can spread the virus to others without knowing. It can take 6 to 12 weeks after contact with infected blood or body fluids for symptoms to appear. If you do experience symptoms, they can include:
- stomach pain
- nausea and vomiting
- decreased appetite
- joint pain
- dark urine and pale stools
- yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
How is hepatitis B spread?
The hepatitis B virus is found in blood and body fluids such as saliva, vaginal secretions, and semen. The infection is spread through anal, vaginal or oral sex, or through sharing equipment for injecting or inhaling drugs with someone who has a hepatitis B infection. Sharing items that can pierce the skin and that have not been properly sterilized can also spread hepatitis B, for example, toothbrushes, razors, and nail clippers as well as equipment for body piercing, ear piercing, or tattooing. Improperly sterilized medical or dental equipment can also be a source of infection. Even if a person with hepatitis B has no symptoms, they can still spread the virus to others.
A pregnant woman with hepatitis B can pass the virus to her unborn baby during pregnancy or while giving birth.
How is hepatitis B diagnosed?
Hepatitis B infection is diagnosed with a blood test. Testing can be offered by a health care provider and at our Sexual Health Clinics.
How is hepatitis B treated?
There is no medication available to treat acute hepatitis B; however, there are some treatments that can help reduce the amount of virus in the blood. People with symptoms of hepatitis B infection should see a health care provider.
How is hepatitis B prevented?
There is a vaccine available to prevent hepatitis B infections.
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is to avoid sharing items that have come into contact with someone’s blood and always use condoms or dental dams when engaging in sexual activity.
Shortly after birth, infants born to mothers with hepatitis B will receive an injection of HBIg (Hepatitis B Immune Globulin) which provides immediate protection and a first dose of vaccine shortly after birth to prevent infection. There are also treatments available to people who have been exposed to the blood or body fluids of someone with hepatitis B infection. They are most effective when started within 48 hours after the exposure.