What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis is the term used to describe an inflammation of the liver, which in some cases can cause serious long-term damage that may lead to liver failure and liver cancer. Some of the symptoms of hepatitis include yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice), itchy skin, and vomiting. Hepatitis is most commonly caused by viral infections, but can also be caused by other factors such as alcohol abuse, certain drugs, and autoimmune diseases.

Hepatitis B is a contagious viral liver infection, and is caused by the hepatitis B virus. The hepatitis B virus lives in the blood and bodily fluids of an infected person, and commonly spreads between people during unprotected sex. The virus can also spread if you’re using unsterilised needles, for example during medical procedures or tattooing and can even be transmitted to babies during childbirth if their mothers are infected with hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B is usually asymptomatic in adults, which means that most people won’t show any obvious symptoms of hepatitis B if they are infected. Most adults will be able to fight off the virus without even realising they are infected. However, children are at a higher risk of developing symptoms and complications of hepatitis B, and have a higher chance of developing a chronic infection that could be lifelong.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include:

  • feeling and being sick
  • feeling tired
  • stomach pain
  • yellowing of eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • itchy skin
  • dark yellow urine
  • pale or “clay-coloured” faeces (poo)

For more in-depth information, please visit our page specifically about the symptoms of hepatitis B.

Is hepatitis B serious?

While adults with hepatitis B may not display any symptoms at all, hepatitis B can cause slow but serious damage to the liver over a very long period of time – in some cases the complications start to appear 30 years after becoming infected. Up to 25% of people with chronic hepatitis B will develop serious liver conditions over their lifetime, such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. According to the World Health Organisation, there were 887000 deaths from Hepatitis B in 2015, which was mainly due to complications of the virus, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.

How do you get hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B spreads when a healthy person is exposed to the blood, semen, or other bodily fluids of someone infected with the hepatitis B virus. The hepatitis B virus can survive outside of the human body for at least 7 days, so it can be picked up from contaminated surfaces or objects if they are not sterilised. Unlike hepatitis A, hepatitis B is not spread through contaminated food and water. The hepatitis B virus also cannot be transmitted just by touching someone with the virus, or through kissing, coughing, or sneezing.

Sex – hepatitis B can spread easily during sex due to the exchange of bodily fluids, especially during unprotected sex. While all kinds of sexual activity has a risk of transmitting hepatitis B, people who have anal sex are at a higher risk of catching the hepatitis B as the virus is transmitted more effectively during anal sex than other types of sexual activity. It is important to note that while condoms can reduce the rate of transmission, it is not 100% effective in preventing the spread of hepatitis B.

Sharing drug preparation equipment – hepatitis B can also spread through shared or unsterilised needles, which could be contaminated with infected blood or other bodily fluids. Other shared drug preparation equipment, such as straws or rolled notes used to snort drugs, can also risk transmission as they may be contaminated with blood.

Tattoos and piercings – activities that involve piercing the skin, including tattoos, piercings, and acupuncture, all have a risk of transmitting hepatitis B if done so in an unsanitary environment. Equipment that is not properly cleaned and sterilised between uses may be contaminated with infected blood, so if you are unsure about how clean or safe the establishment is, it’s best to look elsewhere.

Living with someone with hepatitis B – while hepatitis B is not a virus that can spread through the air, prolonged close contact with someone who has an infection increases the chances that you will be exposed to the virus. Accidental exposure to contaminated fluids can happen when sharing common household items like nail clippers and razors.

During childbirth – pregnant women infected with hepatitis B can pass the virus onto their unborn baby during the pregnancy, or can transmit it during childbirth. This could potentially result in a lifelong infection, as babies are particularly vulnerable to chronic hepatitis B.

Exposure to blood and bodily fluids at work – hepatitis B can easily spread in healthcare settings, especially for healthcare workers that are regularly exposed to the blood or other bodily fluids of patients. Some healthcare professions, where exposure to blood and bodily fluids is common, may require staff to be vaccinated against hepatitis B to make sure they do not catch the virus and spread it to vulnerable patients.

Unscreened blood transfusions – if donated blood is not screened before being used in a blood transfusion, then it is possible that a patient could receive blood from somebody infected with hepatitis B and become infected themselves. Fortunately, all blood donations in the UK are thoroughly screened for bloodborne diseases, though there are some countries where is is not the case.

Who is at risk of hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a particularly virulent condition, and it is estimated that around a third of the global population (2 billion people) have been infected with hepatitis B at some point in their life, with 30 million new infections happening every year.  

Those at high risk of hepatitis B include:

  • People who are sexually active, especially those who have anal sex
  • Healthcare workers
  • Drug users, especially those that inject or snort drugs
  • People who get tattoos or piercings in unsanitary parlours
  • Close contact with somebody infected with hepatitis B
  • Pregnant women and their babies
  • People with a weakened or compromised immune system
  • People born or raised in a country with a high-risk of hepatitis B

Where is hepatitis B found?

The hepatitis B virus can be found in every country across the globe, though the risk of becoming infected is higher in some countries. Most new cases of hepatitis B in the UK are not caught in the UK, but are actually brought in by people who caught the virus while they were travelling or living in high-risk areas.

Areas with a high risk of hepatitis B include:

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • the Middle East
  • Russia
  • the Indian subcontinent
  • South America

How can I protect myself against hepatitis B?

Get vaccinated – the hepatitis B vaccine offers immunity to the virus after 3 doses, which is known to last for 30 years or more. The hepatitis B vaccine is inactivated, which means that it cannot cause an infection as it doesn’t contain any of the live hepatitis B virus. You can get the hepatitis B vaccine from any Superdrug Health Clinic in the UK.

Practise safe sex – hepatitis B can spread during sex, especially anal sex, so it’s best to use protection. This is especially important if you do not know the sexual health status of your partner. Condoms can help to reduce the chance that you will catch hepatitis B from an infected partner, but they are not 100% effective.

Visit reputable tattoo parlours – before getting a tattoo or piercing, make sure that the parlour has high hygiene standards and that all of the equipment used is properly sterilised between uses.

Avoid sharing shaving equipment – razor blades can easily cause small cuts that can draw blood, which then contaminate the blade. If these blades are shared then it is easy to transmit bloodborne diseases, such as hepatitis B. Viruses and bacteria can also live in the spaces between and under the razor blades, so you could also catch other diseases by sharing razor blades.

Consider taking sterile medical equipment kit – access to medical equipment may be limited, particularly if you are travelling to resource poor areas. Making sure that you have a first aid kit with sterilised equipment reduces that chance that you will pick up an infection if you are injured while travelling.