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Facts About...

HEPATITIS B


What is it?

Hepatitis B is a virus. The virus can attack and damage the liver. Half of the people who become infected with the hepatitis B virus will develop symptoms within 60-90 days. However, 50-70% of infected people may not know that they have been infected with the virus unless a blood test is taken.

While most people will develop immunity months later, 5-10% of adults infected with hepatitis B will become life-long carriers and can be infectious to others. Some hepatitis B carriers may develop chronic (life-long) liver disease and are at risk for liver scarring (called cirrhosis) and liver cancer.

How is it spread?

People who have acute hepatitis B infection or who are hepatitis B carriers can spread the infection. In Canada, sexual contact without using a condom (especially oral, anal and vaginal sex) is the most common way of being infected. Hepatitis B can be spread:

  • Through blood, blood products, saliva, semen, vaginal fluid and other fluid containing blood.
  • By sharing needles (e.g., injecting drugs, tattooing, body piercing) or personal items (e.g., toothbrushes, razors, manicure tools) with an infected person.
  • Hepatitis B can be spread to sexual partner(s), those who live in close contact with an infected person and those who share needles for injecting drugs.

Pregnant women who are carriers can spread hepatitis B to their babies around the time of birth and during breastfeeding. About 90% of infected infants become carriers of hepatitis B, most without ever showing symptoms of the disease. Pregnant women should have their blood checked for hepatitis B.

If positive, the baby will receive the hepatitis B vaccine.

What do I look for?

About 50-70% of adults with acute hepatitis B infection often have no symptoms or no signs of illness. However 30-50% of adults newly infected with hepatitis B become ill with acute hepatitis. Symptoms usually come on slowly with loss of appetite, stomach discomfort, feeling very tired, joint pain, fever and jaundice (where skin and whites of eyes turn yellow and urine darkens). When present, symptoms often start in 2-3 months but can start as late as 9 months after being infected. While most adults recover fully, death from acute hepatitis B can occur. Blood tests are required to confirm diagnosis of Hepatitis B.

How is it treated?

Treatment is available for some people. Anybody with chronic hepatitis B should be referred to a specialist for follow up.

If you are infected with hepatitis B:

  • Do not have sex without a condom until your partner is seen by a doctor/health care provider, given the hepatitis B vaccine and is immune. Hepatitis B vaccine is free of charge for sexual partners and close contacts.
  • Never share needles or other personal items such as razors and toothbrushes.
  • Do not donate blood, semen, sperm, or organs.
  • Avoid alcohol to protect your liver.
  • You should receive the Hepatitis A vaccine for free from your doctor/health care provider.

How can I protect myself?

  • Hepatitis B is best prevented by immunization (See Facts About... Hepatitis B Vaccine)
  • Always practice safer sex and use latex condoms when having oral, anal or vaginal sex.
  • Avoid sharing personal hygiene items (e.g., razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers).
  • Carefully investigate personal body services and make sure you go to a technician who uses new and/or sterile equipment for each customer.
  • Do not share needles or drug injection equipment.
  • If you use needles to take drugs, always use a new needle each time. You can get new, clean needles and injection equipment from Project X Change (John Howard Society of Durham).
  • If you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, talk to your doctor/health care provider about getting a hepatitis B blood test. Newborns can receive vaccination if required.
  • If you are exposed to human blood products seek medical attention immediately.

October 10, 2014