What is hepatitis B?
Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis B is one of a group of viruses that can cause this. There are two stages of the infection – “acute” which lasts for one to three months and chronic infections which lasts for longer.
The Hepatitis B virus is found in the blood and bodily fluids such as semen (cum) and vaginal fluid of those infected. Some people have had a mild form of the infection without realising it, which their body has cleared and they are now naturally immune to the virus and not infectious to others.
Listen to Jill Ladlow, one of our expert Sexual Health Nurses, give an overview on Hepatitis B in the video below. She explains about symptoms, how people catch it, how you can get tested and what the treatment usually involves.
What are the symptoms?
Many people have no symptoms and carry the infection without knowing. However, those with symptoms of hepatitis B, may experience one or more of the following:
- Feeling sick
- Flu-like symptoms, such as tiredness, high temperature, general aches and pains, and headaches
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
- Abdominal pain
If you think you may have been exposed to hepatitis B and are experiencing any of the symptoms above, you should get tested as soon as you can.
How do you catch it?
Hepatitis B is usually passed on through having sex without a condom or through your blood coming into contact with the blood of someone who is infected. This includes sharing needles or other equipment when taking drugs. It can also be passed on from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth. There are things that can be done to help prevent onward transmission from mother to baby if diagnosed during pregnancy.
How do you prevent it?
If you are sexually active, the best way to prevent hepatitis B is to use condoms for all sexual contact. If you or your partner(s) have symptoms or have been exposed to hepatitis B, stop all sexual contact until you have the all clear.
There is also a highly effective and safe vaccination available. This is available free of charge through sexual health services to individuals who are felt to be at increased risk. This would include:
- Men who have sex with men
- Commercial sex workers
- People who inject drugs or have a sexual partner who injects drugs
- People who change their sexual partner often (including swingers)
- People living with HIV
How do you get tested?
Testing for hepatitis B is a simple blood test. However, it can take up to 12 weeks for the infection to show up in a test from the time of infection. If your risk was less than 12 weeks ago you may be advised to have a repeat test.
It is possible to pay for at-home hepatitis B testing kits but the accuracy of these can vary so we advise that you speak to your local pharmacist or GP first.
If you test positive, do not panic. You will be given support and information and advised to see your GP first to have some further tests and find out more about your infection. Depending on your stage of infection, your GP may look after you themselves or refer you to the local liver specialist team.
You will be helped to identify anyone else who may have been at risk so that they can also get tested. It is important not to have sex without a condom with anyone, even a regular partner, or to share injecting equipment as you may pass the virus onto others.
If you think that you may have been infected, there are lots of options for getting a free and confidential hepatitis B test. You can visit any NHS sexual health service, including those run by Virgin Care, visit your GP and get tests at some young people’s centres like those run by Brook.
Want to get tested?
What treatment is available?
There are limited treatment options available for an acute infection, which can last for up to three months. Painkillers are often given to manage the symptoms. If managed correctly, it will cause minimal damage to the liver.
With a chronic infection, which can last for six months or more, medication is given to prevent liver damage and patients are closely monitored. This is usually through a specialist liver clinic.