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What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a disease that affects the liver. The virus that causes it is found in blood and bodily fluids (e.g. semen) – for this reason it is classed as a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

How do you get hepatitis B?

You can catch hepatitis B by having sex without a condom with someone who is infected. To avoid hepatitis B you should always practise safe sex when you aren’t sure of your sexual partner’s medical history.

For people who are particularly at risk, there is a hepatitis B vaccine available on the NHS.

Symptoms

Hepatitis B doesn’t always cause symptoms, and it is possible to fight off the infection without knowing that you ever had it. People who do experience symptoms usually develop them one to three months after being infected.

The main symptoms of hepatitis B are similar to the flu or a bad stomach bug:

  • Fever
  • Aches and pains
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite

Three other symptoms are:

  • Jaundice, where the skin and eyes start to turn yellow
  • Dark urine
  • Pale stools

Tests

To get tested for hepatitis B you should visit your GP or a sexual health or GUM clinic. You will receive a blood test to see if you have, or have ever had, the hepatitis B virus.

It’s a good idea to get tested if you believe you’ve been exposed to the virus, you have the symptoms described above, or you’re particularly at risk of infection because of your lifestyle or background.

If you believe you have recently been exposed to the virus, you can receive emergency treatment to help prevent infection. It is best to receive this within 48 hours of exposure.

Treatment

Emergency treatment for hepatitis B involves a dose of the vaccine and a dose of antibodies (known as immunoglobulin).

If you become infected and your body doesn’t fight off the virus on its own, you may require ongoing treatment to help keep the virus under control and prevent damage to the liver.

Usually, patients are prescribed antiviral medicines and something called peginterferon alfa 2-a, which encourages your immune system to fight the virus.

 

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP