What is it?

The word hepatitis means “inflammation of the liver”. Hepatitis B infection can either be a short-term “acute” infection or a long-term “chronic” infection.

When a person is first infected with the Hepatitis B virus, they are said to have an “acute” infection. During an acute infection, which can last up to six months, a person can transmit the virus to others. About 90 percent of adults will recover from the acute stage within a few months of infection, as their bodies develop immunity to the virus and fight off the infection. These people will not develop “chronic” hepatitis. Their symptoms disappear (if they have any), they will no longer be able to transmit the virus to others and they typically have no long-term effects of the infection.

For others, their bodies will not be able to fight off the virus, and will develop “chronic” hepatitis, which is a long-term infection of the liver. These people are called “chronic carriers” and can transmit infection all their lives. A person has “chronic” Hepatitis B if the infection persists for more than six months.

How do you get it?

Hepatitis B is a sexually transmitted infection and can be spread through anal, vaginal or oral sex with an infected partner.

It may be spread from an infected mother to her child during birth.

It can also be passed along through blood-to-blood contact such as sharing needles for drug use, or by sharing personal items like razors or toothbrushes that have come into contact with infected blood.

What are the symptoms?

Most people will have no symptoms of an infection. For this reason, many people who are infected with Hepatitis B may never know it and still transmit it.

Symptoms of acute hepatitis are often mild and may be mistaken for the flu. These include: tiredness, aching joints, pain in the stomach area, loss of appetite, nausea and a general feeling of sickness. In some cases, Hepatitis B may also cause Jaundice, which is a sign of liver problems.

At first, many people with chronic Hepatitis B infections will have no symptoms; however, a chronic infection can cause serious liver scarring, and sometimes-fatal liver diseases including cirrhosis and liver cancer. People who are infected with the virus but do not show symptoms can still transmit the infection to others. Drinking alcohol can speed the destruction of the liver in people with hepatitis.

How do you test for Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B infection can be tested for with a blood test.

How is it treated?

There are some treatments available for chronic Hepatitis B infections that help control the virus from spreading. However, these medications are not recommended for everyone.

A vaccine is also available to prevent Hepatitis B infection. The Hepatitis B vaccine works by “tricking” your body into thinking it has Hepatitis B. The vaccine is not a virus and it will not hurt you, but to your body, the vaccine “looks” exactly like the Hepatitis B virus. Because your body thinks a virus is invading it, it will build up defences to try to fight it off. To do this, your body produces special cells, built for the specific purpose of fighting off Hepatitis B. Your body will continue to produce these defences long after the vaccine is gone. This way, if you ever get the real Hepatitis B virus, your body will have defences ready, and will be able to fight off the virus before it establishes itself in your body.

In Canada, all provinces and territories in Canada currently have a universal childhood Hepatitis B immunization program in place.

Where can I get help?

Visit one of our Sexual Health Clinics or to speak confidentially with a Public Health Nurse call 519-271-7600 or toll-free at 1-877-271-7348 extension 779.