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Hepatitis B - the facts

Page content: What is hepatitis? | What are the symptoms of hepatitis B? | What happens if you have chronic hepatitis B? | How is hepatitis B spread? | How can I avoid becoming infected with hepatitis B?Can I be immunised against hepatitis B? | Who should be immunised? | Does the vaccine have side effects? | How effective is the vaccine? | Is there a treatment for hepatitis B? | What should I do if I think I have just been exposed to hepatitis B? | Further information

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is the name for several different illnesses which all cause an inflamed (swollen or painful) liver. The liver is a vital part of the body. If it does not function properly, it can cause serious illness and sometimes death.

Drinking alcohol in large quantities or taking drugs or medication can cause hepatitis. It can also be caused by certain viruses. The different types of virus are known by different letters - A, B, C, D and E - so the different forms of the disease are called 'hepatitis A', 'hepatitis B' and so on. Sometimes people shorten the name, and say 'hep A' or 'hep B'.

These viruses are spread in different ways, so the ways to prevent people catching the disease are different too.

See information about other types of hepatitis:

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

Some people who are infected with hepatitis B do not become very ill. Some do not become sick at all. Children are less likely to have symptoms than adults even when infected.

In more severe cases, hepatitis B can cause:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain in the liver (under the right rib cage)
  • Fever
  • Pain in the joints
  • Jaundice (when the eyes and skin become yellow).

Normally these symptoms disappear in a few weeks, but even when the person feels much better he or she may still be infected with the hepatitis B virus and remain infectious.

Most adults who catch hepatitis B recover completely and do not get the disease again. But a few people become very ill, and some even die.

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What happens if you have chronic hepatitis B?

People who become infected with the hepatitis B virus may develop a long-term hepatitis B infection, which occurs when the virus stays in their body for their entire life. This is called chronic hepatitis B.

People with chronic hepatitis B often have no symptoms, but may eventually suffer illnesses such as chronic liver disease or liver cancer. Even while they seem in good health, they can still infect other people.

About 95 per cent of adults who become infected with hepatitis B will clear the infection by themselves and require no ongoing treatment.

Babies and children who are infected are more likely than adults to develop chronic hepatitis B. This occurs more commonly in some population groups because they have higher rates of chronic hepatitis B. These population groups include people from China, South East Asia, the Pacific Islands, sub-Saharan Africa and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

How is hepatitis B spread?

Hepatitis B is a blood-borne virus, which can be sexually transmitted.

In people with hepatitis B, the virus can be found in the blood (or serum) and to a lesser degree in their body fluids such as semen or vaginal secretions.

Hepatitis B can be spread following exposure of non-intact skin (open cuts) or mucous membranes (such as the genital tract) to infected blood or, less efficiently, after exposure to infected body fluids.

The hepatitis B virus is present in the blood of an infected person. If infected blood enters another person's blood stream, that person may become infected.

The disease can be spread by:

  • Sharing equipment used for injecting drugs.
  • Piercing the skin with equipment which is not properly cleaned and sterilised.
  • Sharing razor blades or toothbrushes.
  • One person's blood coming into contact with open cuts on another person.

People who receive blood transfusions in Australia have a very low risk of getting hepatitis B. The Australian Red Cross Blood Service currently estimates this risk as approximately 1 in 739,000 (see for further information).

The hepatitis B virus can be spread if people have unprotected sexual intercourse, especially if there is blood present.

Mother to Baby
Mothers who have chronic hepatitis B sometimes pass the virus to their children. Some babies are infected during birth or shortly after birth. In Australia newborn babies are quickly immunised to protect them from infection.

Is there a test for hepatitis B?

Yes, there are different blood tests that can be performed to determine if you are or have been infected with hepatitis B.

It is important to remember that there is a period of time when a person may be infected with hepatitis B but the usual testing does not detect it. It can take up to six months for the blood tests to confirm infection and follow-up testing may be required.

There are also other tests that can assess liver damage or the likelihood of future liver damage from hepatitis B. The interpretation of these tests can be complicated and specialist advice is needed so consult your doctor.

What should I do if I already have hepatitis B?

About 95 per cent of adults who become infected with hepatitis B will clear the infection by themselves and require no ongoing treatment.

If you have long-term hepatitis B you should:

  • Consult your doctor who will monitor your condition and, if necessary, refer you to a specialist.
  • Ensure your partner and close contacts are immunised against hepatitis B.
  • Completely cover any cut or wound with a waterproof dressing.
  • Practice safe sex.
  • Have safe levels of alcohol and eat a well-balanced, low fat diet.

If you have hepatitis B you should not:

  • Share injecting equipment.
  • Donate blood or body organs.
  • Share personal items such as toothbrushes or razors.

Although there is no legal obligation to do so, you may wish to discuss your condition with your health care provider, for example, doctor, dentist, allied health or complementary health providers.

How can I avoid becoming infected with hepatitis B?

Everyone can take simple steps to protect themselves.

  • Be vaccinated against hepatitis B.
  • Use condoms every time you have casual vaginal or anal sex.
  • Oral sex is normally unlikely to spread hepatitis B, but it is best to avoid oral sex if you or your partner have herpes, ulcers or bleeding gums.
  • If you inject drugs, never share needles and syringes or other equipment such as spoons, swabs and water. Always use sterile needles and syringes. These are available from needle and syringe programs and some chemists. To find out where you can obtain needles and syringes or, if necessary, how to clean them, contact DIRECTLINE on 1800 888 236. Always wash your hands before and after injecting.
  • Wear single-use gloves if you give someone first aid or clean up blood or body fluids.

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Can I be immunised against hepatitis B?

Yes. There is a good vaccine available, and immunisation is the most effective way to protect against hepatitis B infection.

For adults to obtain maximum protection you must receive three doses of the vaccine. The second dose is given one month after the first dose, and the third dose is given five months after that.

Remember the hepatitis B vaccine only protects against hepatitis B - it does not protect people from other hepatitis viruses.

Who should be immunised?

Immunisation recommended for everyone and especially if you:

  • inject drugs.
  • have a sexual partner who has hepatitis B
  • are a man who has sex with men.
  • have many sexual partners.
  • live in a house where someone has hepatitis B.
  • are a health care or emergency worker, or if you come into contact with blood during your work.
  • are a prisoner.
  • are a kidney dialysis patient.
  • have a blood clotting disorder and are treated with blood products.
  • already have a liver disease such as hepatitis C.
  • are a resident or staff member at a facility for people with intellectual disabilities.
  • intend staying for a long time in high risk areas overseas.
  • adopt children from overseas. These children should be tested for hepatitis B and if they have the virus, members of the adoptive family should be vaccinated.

Immunisation is also recommended and is free for:

  • all students in Year 7 at school.
  • babies and children up to ten years old who live in a household with someone who has hepatitis B.
  • all babies

To be immunised, contact your doctor or local council.

Does the vaccine have side effects?

Reactions to the vaccine are uncommon, but some people do suffer side effects soon after immunisation. These include fever, soreness where the injection was given, nausea, and joint pain.

How effective is the vaccine?

The adult course of three doses gives protection to about 95 per cent of adults.

Being immunised against hepatitis B does not protect you against HIV, hepatitis C or other diseases spread through blood or body fluids. It is important that you take precautions to ensure that you are not exposed to these.

Is there a treatment for hepatitis B?

Treatment is available and some treatments are covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

People with long-term hepatitis B may require treatment. The aim of the treatment is to suppress replication of the virus and reduce liver damage.

The current treatments available include pegylated interferon and antiviral medications. Treatment can be accessed through a hospital liver clinic. For more information on treatment, consult your doctor.

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What should I do if I think I have just been exposed to hepatitis B?

See a doctor immediately. Your doctor can give you treatment in some instances, which will reduce the risk of you becoming infected with hepatitis B.

Further information

To find out more about hepatitis B or immunisation against hepatitis B contact:

Department of Health
Telephone: 1300 651 160

Education and Resource Centre at The Alfred
Telephone: (03) 9076 6993

HIV & Sexual Health Connect
Telephone: 1800 038 125
TTY for deaf callers: 1800 555 677


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