Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver, which can follow a variable course, this means that different patients may have different symptoms and treatment needs. The Hepatitis B virus (HBV) can cause an acute illness that resolves itself quickly without causing long-term liver damage. However, in about 20% of cases it can cause a chronic illness that lasts more than six months, sometimes for life, with symptoms which come and go. In 15-40% of those with chronic infection cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure develops, and so the infection may eventually be fatal.
HBV is usually transmitted through contact with infected blood or body fluids and can be sexually transmitted. Only a tiny amount of blood is needed to transmit the virus because it is so infectious. The virus may also be present in saliva, vaginal secretions, breast milk and other bodily fluids. Infection commonly occurs through unprotected sexual intercourse, the sharing of contaminated needles by drugs users, accidental injury with a contaminated needle (if needles used for tattooing, body piercing or acupuncture are contaminated), needle stick injuries for healthcare workers, and sharing razors.
There are often no symptoms, which is why it is important to get checked regularly. Symptoms, if they occur, can include feeling tired, aches, nausea, vomiting, passing darker urine than usual and being jaundiced.
You can have a test at our clinic, either on its own or as part of our Full STD test package. A blood sample is needed, and the same sample can also be used for other STD tests you may want to order. Results are normally available the same day that the sample is received in the laboratory. At certain clinics, Instant Hepatitis B testing is available, which will give you a result in around 20 minutes.
The majority of people with HBV do not need specific treatment other than rest, and they will eventually make a full recovery.
However, it is important that the infection is monitored to check whether chronic disease develops, and the person is given advice about the risk of passing the infection on. If the infection lasts more than six months (a chronic infection, where the virus continues to actively reproduce in the body) you may need more specific drug treatment to reduce the risk of permanent liver damage (cirrhosis) and liver cancer. Your GP should refer you to a specialist in either liver disease (a hepatologist) or general digestive diseases (a gastroenterologist). They may recommend treatment either with antiviral drugs and other medications. They can be given as regular injections, which help to boost the immune system to fight the infection. The response is variable, and some people who initially get better get worse again when the treatment is stopped. Others find that the side effects mean that they cannot continue with treatment. There are several different antiviral drugs, which are also now used to treat a chronic case. They are not a cure, but they do suppress the virus. These drugs may also have side effects – and the virus may become resistant to them.
There is an effective vaccination to protect people from infection. Family and other household members of an infected person should be vaccinated. Healthcare workers, the police, the emergency services and anyone who is likely to come in contact with infected blood through their job should also be vaccinated.
You can choose to be vaccinated with Better2Know, which can offer you excellent protection against the virus. For more information see our vaccines page.
If left undetected and untreated, the virus can weaken your immune system and mean that you are more at risk of contracting HIV and other STIs through unprotected intercourse. It can also cause chronic inflammation of the liver and may lead to liver cancer. If you are pregnant, the risk of transmission to your baby can be minimised by your midwife who will be able to advise you.