What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus, which is spread between people by body fluids. It is a serious disease that causes your liver to become inflamed. Most people recover completely. Some people have long-lasting effects, which can lead to liver disease (including cirrhosis), liver cancer and death. People who are infected with hepatitis B when they are children are more likely to have serious liver disease later in life.

Some people who have recovered from hepatitis B can still carry the virus, meaning they can pass the virus to others even though they don’t show any symptoms.

Hepatitis A, B and C are all different diseases, so they have different symptoms and different treatments. The hepatitis B vaccine does not protect you from hepatitis A or hepatitis C.

Symptoms

Hepatitis B symptoms include:

  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rashes
  • pain in the right-hand side of the stomach area
  • fever
  • sore joints
  • jaundice (yellow skin and eyes).

Symptoms usually start about 2 to 3 months after catching hepatitis B and can last for 6 weeks to 6 months.

Who is at risk

Hepatitis B can affect people at any age though the following people have higher risk of infection:

  • people who have unprotected sex
  • newborns whose mothers have hepatitis B
  • people who come in contact with other people’s blood and other body fluids
  • people injecting drugs with shared needles.

How it spreads

Hepatitis B spreads when:

  • you have unprotected sex with an infected person
  • you share needles or piercing equipment with an infected person
  • you share a toothbrush with an infected person
  • an infected mother gives birth to a baby
  • an infected child bites another child
  • you are exposed in another way to the blood, semen or vaginal fluids of an infected person.

Prevention

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect you against hepatitis B.

Other ways to prevent hepatitis B infection include:

  • using condoms during sex
  • covering any open wounds or cuts with a waterproof dressing
  • not sharing personal items like toothbrushes and razors
  • only going to piercing and tattoo studios that are registered and use proper sterilisation techniques
  • using gloves when helping with first aid.

Find out more about getting vaccinated against hepatitis B.

Diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose hepatitis B by:

  • checking your symptoms
  • asking if you’ve been in contact with someone who has hepatitis B
  • doing a blood test.

If you have hepatitis B your doctor may be required to notify your state or territory health department.

Treatment 

There is no specific treatment for hepatitis B, and many people get better on their own. To relieve symptoms:

  • drink plenty of fluids
  • get enough rest
  • eat a healthy diet
  • avoid alcohol.

People with chronic hepatitis B may need medicine to treat the virus. If you have chronic hepatitis B, follow the advice from your medical team about monitoring your disease and staying healthy.

People who develop liver disease or cancer from hepatitis B will need specialist treatment.

Contacts

National Immunisation Information Line

Resources

Hepatitis B vaccines for Australians
Hepatitis B and multiple sclerosis

Last updated: 
16 October 2019