Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is an infection caused by a virus found in blood and bodily fluids. Not everyone experiences hepatitis B symptoms, but some symptoms can be serious, such as liver damage. The type of hepatitis B treatment needed depends on how long you have had the disease, as it can be chronic.

Risk areas
Sub-Saharan Africa, East and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, parts of South America, southern parts of Eastern and Central Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent
Cases a year
30 million
Deaths a year
People at highest risk
Gay men, drug users, children

01. Causes of hepatitis B

Hepatitis B causes a virus to spread through the blood and body fluids of an infected person. Hepatitis B is highly contagious, so it can be passed from person to person.

Hepatitis B transmission can occur by having unprotected sex with an infected person or sharing toothbrushes or razors that are contaminated with blood.

Other potential hepatitis B causes include using infected needles when taking non-prescription drugs, or getting a tattoo or body piercing from a place with bad hygiene.

Moreover, hepatitis B in children can be caused by a mother passing the virus to her newborn baby, or between families living in countries where the infection is common and people are mostly unvaccinated.

In rare circumstances, the needles used in hospital or dental procedures can be a cause of hepatitis B transmission if they are not properly sterilised.

You cannot get hepatitis B kissing, holding hands, hugging, coughing, sneezing, or sharing crockery and utensils with an infected person.

02. Risk areas

Hepatitis B is less common in the UK, but it is still a problem in other parts of the world.

Travellers are most at risk of hepatitis B when visiting:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa

  • East and Southeast Asia

  • the Pacific Islands

  • parts of South America

  • southern parts of Eastern and Central Europe

  • the Middle East

  • the Indian subcontinent.

However, outbreaks can occur anywhere in the world if someone infected with hepatitis B travels to a different country and infects others. This means that the hepatitis B risk changes.

Check if the country you are travelling to has a risk of hepatitis B through the search bar below.

03. Symptoms of hepatitis B

Only some people, who are infected, experience hepatitis B symptoms. Many adults will not experience any hepatitis B symptoms at all, and will fight off the infection without realising they had it.

Signs of hepatitis B usually develop two or three months after exposure to the hepatitis B virus. This is known as the incubation period of hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B symptoms can include:

  • tiredness

  • general aches and pains

  • fever

  • appetite loss

  • sickness and nausea

  • diarrhoea

  • stomach pain

  • yellowing of the skin and eyes, known as jaundice

  • dark urine and pale and grey-coloured faeces

Many of these hepatitis B symptoms can be mistaken for more common illnesses, such as the flu, so it is important to see a doctor if you have been travelling in a risk area.

04. Chronic versus acute hepatitis B

Hepatitis B can be acute or chronic, meaning it can cause symptoms for a short time, or many months or years.

Adults with hepatitis B will usually make a full recovery within one to three months. This is known as acute hepatitis B and rarely causes any serious problems.

Occasionally, the infection can last for six months or more. This is known as chronic hepatitis B.

It is most common to see chronic hepatitis B in children and babies. Chronic hepatitis B symptoms tend to be quite mild and may come and go. Some people may not have any noticeable symptoms.

You can be treated with medicines to help fight the virus and make living with hepatitis b more manageable. However, without treatment, people with chronic hepatitis B can develop more serious problems, such as liver damage.

There is no specific cure for chronic hepatitis B, so it is important to check if you are at risk and if you should get the vaccine.

05. Diagnosis of hepatitis B

Hepatitis B diagnosis involves a simple blood test. If you are found to be infected, then other tests may be advised to check how severe the infection is, and how much damage has been caused to the liver.

Hepatitis B diagnosis may include:

  • blood tests called liver function tests

  • scans to look at your liver, called an ultrasound

  • samples of the liver taken during surgery, called a biopsy

06. Treatment of hepatitis B

Hepatitis B treatment depends on how long you have been infected for.

Emergency hepatitis B treatment can be given soon after you come into contact with the virus to stop an infection from developing.

Emergency injections are most effective if given within 48 hours after possible exposure to hepatitis B, but you can still have them up to a week after you have been infected. So you must see your doctor as soon as possible.

Acute hepatitis B does not usually need specific hepatitis B treatment, but you can be given help to relieve some symptoms.

Many people do not have any serious hepatitis B symptoms, but if you do feel unwell, hepatitis B treatment may include:

  • rest

  • over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol

  • keeping cool and wearing loose clothing to ease itching

  • anti-sickness medication, if needed

Chronic hepatitis B is often treated with medication to keep the virus under control.

After six months, your doctor may recommend medication to reduce the risk of complications of hepatitis B and regular tests to check the health of your liver.

Chronic hepatitis b in pregnancy

People with hepatitis B can usually have a healthy pregnancy, but you should discuss a hepatitis B prevention plan with a doctor, as you may need extra care and your medications may need to be changed.

If you are pregnant and have hepatitis B, there is a risk of you passing the disease to your child at the time of birth. However, this risk can be reduced by getting your baby vaccinated shortly after they are born.

07. Prevention of hepatitis B

There are many things you can do to decrease your risk of becoming infected with hepatitis B, including getting vaccinated.

If you need to get vaccinated for hepatitis B, you can book a vaccination appointment online today.

If you are unsure if the hepatitis B vaccine is right for you, book a free telephone consultation to speak to one of our prescribing nurses, who can give you a personal recommendation based on your health and travel plans.

For effective hepatitis B prevention while travelling in risk areas, it is recommended that you:

  • check if you need the hepatitis B vaccine

  • learn about hepatitis B symptoms, so you can spot signs

  • avoid contact with anyone infected with hepatitis B

  • avoid sexual contact with those infected with hepatitis B

  • do not inject drugs that are not prescribed by a doctor

  • avoid tattoo or piercing parlours

  • do not share razors or toothbrushes

Content reviewed by

Anne Marie Major, Independent Nurse Prescriber
24 June 2019