Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver. It’s caused by a virus that's spread through blood and body fluids. It can affect anyone but some people are at higher risk of infection. Get medical help if you think you’ve been exposed to hepatitis B or have symptoms of it.

Symptoms of hepatitis B

Many people with hepatitis B won't experience any symptoms. They may fight off the virus without realising they had it. If symptoms develop, they tend to occur two or three months after exposure to the virus.

Symptoms include:

These usually pass within one to three months (acute hepatitis B). Occasionally they can last for six months or more (chronic hepatitis B).

When to get medical advice

Hepatitis B can be serious, so you should get medical advice if:

  • you think you have been exposed to the hepatitis B virus
  • you have symptoms associated with hepatitis B
  • you're at a high risk of hepatitis B

High-risk groups include:

  • people born in a country where the infection is common
  • babies born to mothers infected with hepatitis B
  • people who have ever injected drugs

You can go to your local GP surgery, addiction service, genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or sexual health clinic for help and advice.

A blood test can be carried out to check if you have hepatitis B or have had it in the past. The hepatitis B vaccine may also be recommended.

Treatments for hepatitis B

Treatment for hepatitis B depends on how long you've been infected for:

  • if you've been exposed to the virus in the past few days, emergency treatment can help stop you becoming infected
  • if you've had the infection for a few weeks or months (acute hepatitis B), you may only need treatment to relieve your symptoms while your body fights off the infection
  • if you've had the infection for more than six months (chronic hepatitis B), you may be offered treatment with medicines that can keep the virus under control and reduce the risk of liver damage

Chronic hepatitis B often requires long-term or lifelong treatment and regular monitoring to check for any further liver problems.

How hepatitis B is spread

The virus is found in the blood and bodily fluids, such as semen and vaginal fluids, of an infected person. It can be spread:

  • from a mother to her newborn baby, particularly in countries where the infection is common
  • within families in countries where the infection is common
  • by injecting drugs and sharing needles and other drug equipment
  • by having sex with an infected person without a condom
  • by having a tattoo, body piercing, or medical or dental treatment in an unhygienic environment with unsterilised equipment
  • by sharing toothbrushes or razors contaminated with infected blood

Hepatitis B is not spread by:

  • kissing
  • holding hands
  • hugging
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • Sharing cups, glasses, plates, bowls or cutlery

Preventing hepatitis B

A vaccine that offers protection against hepatitis B is available for all babies born in Northern Ireland on or after August 1 2017. It is also available for people at high risk of the infection or complications from it.

This includes:

  • babies born to hepatitis B-infected mothers
  • close family and sexual partners of someone with hepatitis B
  • people travelling to a part of the world where hepatitis B is widespread, such as sub-Saharan Africa, east and southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands
  • families adopting or fostering children from high-risk countries 
  • people who inject drugs or have a sexual partner who injects drugs
  • people who change sexual partners very often
  • men who have sex with men
  • male and female sex workers
  • people who work somewhere that places them at risk of contact with blood or body fluids
  • people with chronic liver disease
  • people with chronic kidney disease
  • people receiving regular blood or blood products, and their carers 

The hepatitis B vaccine is given to infants as part of the childhood immunisation programme and to those who are at high risk of developing the infection.

You do not need to pay for the vaccine if your child is eligible to receive it or if born to a hepatitis B-infected mother. Others may have to pay.

Outlook for hepatitis B

Most people infected with hepatitis B in adulthood are able to fight off the virus and fully recover within one to three months. Most will then be immune to the infection.

Babies and children with hepatitis B are more likely to develop a chronic infection.

Although treatment can help, there's a risk that people with chronic hepatitis B could eventually develop life-threatening problems such as scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) or liver cancer.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published February 2018

This page is due for review April 2019

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