What is it?
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.
How can I get it?
HBV is usually transmitted through contact with infected blood or body fluids. It 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. In the UK, 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) and sharing razors.
How do I know if I have it?
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.
Hepatitis B Testing
You can have a test at Better2Know, either on its own or as part of our Full STI test package. A blood sample is needed, and the same sample can also be used for other tests you may want to order. Results are normally available the day after the sample is received in the laboratory.
How is it treated?
The majority of people with HBV do not need specific treatment other than rest. 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. If you test positive, we will make you an appointment with a Better2Know doctor, if you would like. You can also go to your own doctor. Your chosen doctor 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, or other medications. Some may be given as regular injections and helps boost the immune system to fight the infection. The response can be 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. Several different antiviral drugs, 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 need three doses to be fully protected. You will then require a booster every five years.
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 STDs 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 you midwife who will be able to advise you.