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Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B (or hep B) is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). The liver is part of the body’s digestive system and performs lots of functions essential to health like digesting fats and filtering toxins.

When your liver isn’t working properly you can feel very sick.

sandHepatitis B ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks (acute), to a serious long-term (chronic) illness that can lead to liver disease or liver cancer.

How do you catch Hepatitis B?

Hep B can be transferred from one person to another through body fluids like blood, semen, vaginal fluid and saliva.

It can be passed on through:

  • unprotected oral, anal or vaginal sex ¬†with a person who has hep B
  • sharing toothbrushes (if the person has a cut inside their mouth), razors, needles or injecting equipment with a person who has hep B
  • getting a tattoo with ink that’s been used to tattoo someone else
  • contact sports where players might receive cuts and grazes.

Other ways you can catch it

During the birth of a baby, the blood from the infected mother can get inside the baby’s blood stream. A very small number of babies get infected while the infected mother is pregnant.

What are the symptoms of Hep B?

About half the number of people infected with Hep B don’t have any symptoms. They can pass it on without ever knowing they’re infected.

For the other half, some of the symptoms of Hep B are:

  • fever and extreme tiredness
  • pain in your stomach
  • your urine or excrement can be a strange colour
  • your skin can look yellow
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea.

A very small percentage of people can get very sick, very suddenly. They can feel very tired, often have a yellowish tone to their skin and a swollen stomach.

They need to be treated by a doctor immediately.

If you’re pregnant, will Hep B affect the baby?

Hep B can be passed on to babies, usually during childbirth. The virus can also cause problems for the mother during pregnancy, depending on how sick she is. It’s important to be tested for hep B when you’re pregnant so the doctor can work out how to best look after you and the baby.

How can I prevent it?

You can protect yourself against hep B by getting vaccinated. The vaccine is injected by needle over a few months. Using condoms will decrease the risk of catching hep B from having sex. See condoms for tips on how to use them correctly. Also, be blood aware. When playing sports, wash blood off yourself, and if someone else has blood on them, wear gloves if you’re giving them first aid treatment.

What happens during a hep B test?

The test for hep B is a blood test. The doctor or nurse will take a sample of your blood and examine it for the virus. If you have hep B, the doctor or nurse will give you another blood test to see if you are a carrier and can pass the infection on to other people. To find out where you can go for a sexual health check, check Think Contraception for a list of clinics around the country.

How is hep B treated?

There’s no medical treatment for hep B, but some people’s systems get rid of the infection on their own. Ninety-five percent of people with the infection get completely well. You might have to be careful about what you eat, and stop drinking alcohol. Your doctor can give you advice about this. About 5% of people can’t get rid of the virus and go on to develop serious health problems. These people are called ‘carriers’ and might still be able to pass the infection on to other people.

There’s a vaccine that can reduce the likelihood of becoming infected if it’s received within two weeks of exposure to the virus. If you’ve engaged in unprotected sex, talk to a sexual health clinic about whether this vaccine would help.

If you go to a clinic, will they tell my parents?

According to the law you can request and receive medical care for yourself once you’re 16-years-old. At the sexual health clinic, discussion with you and the information you give the staff is completely confidential. It can’t be shared with your parents or people you know, unless the law requires staff to do so. An example of this would be if health staff thought you were at risk of serious harm. In this case the clinic is required to report this to the duty social worker from the Health Service Executive (HSE). Another example might be if your files were required in a court case.

Doctors are also required to report the number of cases of hep B to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre so they can monitor the disease in Ireland. Your personal details will not be used. They don’t need to know who you are, but they do need to keep track of how many people are getting the infection.

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This article was last reviewed on 01 May 2017

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