What is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is the name of a virus and the name of the sickness it causes.
Hepatitis B makes your liver sick. Drinking too much alcohol can also cause this; so can drugs, some chemicals and other viruses.
Your liver is very important for your health. When it is damaged it may not work properly and can make you very sick.
Hepatitis B is sometimes called “hep B”.
How do I get hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is passed on when blood or sexual fluids from someone with hepatitis B get into your bloodstream. You can get hepatitis B even if the amount of blood or sexual fluid is too small to see.
For babies and young children
- a mother with hepatitis B can give it to her baby when it is born if the baby is not vaccinated quickly
- a child with hepatitis B can give it to another child who is not vaccinated, through uncovered cuts and sores
You can get hepatitis B from:
- vaginal, anal or oral sex without a condom
- sharing needles, syringes or other injecting equipment including teaspoons
- tattooing or body piercing with unclean equipment
- sharing toothbrushes, razors, or nail files
- an accident with a needle or splashing of infected blood
You cannot get hepatitis B from:
- sharing food and eating utensils
- eating food prepared by someone with hepatitis B
- insect or animal bites
- washing clothes
- sneezing or coughing
- sharing bathrooms or toilets
- swimming pools
How do I know if I have hepatitis B?
Most people have no signs or symptoms and don’t feel sick. The only way you will know is to have a blood test.
When you first get hepatitis B you might have:
- no desire to eat
- dark urine
- liver pain (under the ribs on the right)
- pain in the joints
- yellow eyes and skin (jaundice)
What does hepatitis B do to my body?
Hepatitis B gets into cells in your liver and makes it sick. The body works hard to fight the virus in the liver. This fight hurts the liver and, over many years, can stop the liver working.
In most adults, the body gets rid of the hepatitis B within 6 months of catching it, and you cannot get it again.
But in young children and some adults, sometimes the body can’t fight it off, and hepatitis B stays in the body for life. This is called ‘chronic hepatitis B’ and it can cause liver damage, liver scarring (cirrhosis) and liver cancer. Medicines can reduce liver damage and prevent liver cancer.
What do I do if I have hepatitis B?
You MUST see your doctor every six to twelve months, even if you feel good. This is because hepatitis B doesn’t make you feel sick. If you do feel sick it’s because there is already liver damage.
As well as blood tests, your doctor may do a Fibroscan®. A Fibroscan® is a liver scan that tells your doctor if there is liver damage or scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and how bad it is. The doctor will then decide if you need medicine or need to go to a liver clinic or see a special liver doctor.
Can hepatitis B be treated or cured?
Yes, hepatitis B can be treated.
But not all people with hepatitis B need medicine. Your doctor will tell you if you need medicine.
Medicine won’t cure hepatitis B. But it can control damage to your liver, lower the chance of getting liver cancer and help the liver repair itself.
Talk to your doctor about which medicine is best for you.
How can I help my liver?
- drink less alcohol or none
- eat a balanced, healthy diet, and not too much fat
- stop or cut down smoking
- exercise regularly
- manage your stress and get support
- tell your doctor if you are taking any medicines like herbal medicines, vitamins, or Chinese medicines. Some of these can hurt the liver, especially if taken in high doses or for a long time
protect yourself from other infections because they can severely affect your health and cause more liver damage:
- get vaccinated for hepatitis A
- do not share needles or teaspoons to inject drugs
- use condoms
How can I avoid getting hepatitis B or giving it to someone?
Vaccination is the best way to stop hepatitis B from spreading.
It is very safe and protects you more than 95% of the time.
You get 2 or 3 injections over 6 months, depending on your age.
In Australia, all babies under 1 get 4 free injections over 6 months. Vaccination is recommended for children aged 10 to 13 who did not get injections as a baby.
If a mother has hepatitis B the baby will have an extra injection within twelve hours of being born. This gives the baby the best protection. When babies are 9 months old, they need to be tested to make sure they are immune to hepatitis B.
To avoid giving hepatitis B to someone:
- make sure the people you have close contact with are vaccinated
- use condoms
- do not share toothbrushes, razors or other personal things that may have blood on them, including dry blood
- do not let other people touch your open wounds unless they have gloves on
- do not share needles, syringes or other drug injecting equipment
- do not give blood, sperm, organs or body tissue
- talk to your doctor about the vaccinations your baby will need if you are pregnant or want to have a baby
Do I have to tell anyone if I have hepatitis B?
- You should tell your family, people you live with and your sexual partner (or partners) so they can be tested and vaccinated. Your doctor can help you do this.
- If you want to join the Australian Defence Force, you must tell them.
- You must tell your insurance company. If you don’t, they might not pay you money if you get sick or injured.
- If you are a health care worker who does medical procedures where you cannot see your hands (such as a surgeon or dentist), you must tell your employer or supervisor and get advice from a specialist doctor.
You do not have to tell your boss, people you work or study with or your friends.
Telling people like your dentist or doctor will help them give you the best medical care, but this is your choice. If you decide to tell them, they cannot tell anyone else.
You may want to talk to other people who can understand and support you. Take your time to decide who you think you can trust.
Where can I get help and advice?
There are many hepatitis B community groups in Australia that can give you advice and help you.