Hepatitis B: Symptoms and treatment

Hepatitis B is a vaccine-preventable liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). The first 6 months of a HBV infection is called an acute infection. If the infection lasts for more than 6 months, it is considered a chronic infection. Hepatitis B is a sexually transmitted and blood-borne infection (STBBI) as it can be transmitted through sexual or blood contact (including household members, sexual partners and drug-use partners).

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Symptoms of Hepatitis B

Many people who are living with acute or chronic hepatitis B have either no symptoms or only mild symptoms.

For those who develop symptoms of an acute hepatitis B infection, symptoms can take 2 to 6 months to appear and can include:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • joint pain
  • dark urine
  • loss of appetite
  • abdominal pain
  • clay-coloured bowel movements
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

About 90% to 95% of adults with acute hepatitis B will clear the virus on their own within 6 months, and develop lifelong protection against it.

Some people will not spontaneously clear the virus and will develop chronic hepatitis B. Children under 4 years old are at particular risk of developing chronic hepatitis B. Infants up to 12 months old have a 90% to 95% chance of developing chronic hepatitis B and children between 1 and 4 years old have a 25% to 50% chance of developing chronic hepatitis B.

Most people with chronic hepatitis B are unaware of their infection. Untreated chronic hepatitis B can develop into serious health problems, such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and/or liver cancer.

Testing for Hepatitis B virus

Talk to your health care provider about getting tested if you think you are at risk for or may have hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B is diagnosed through blood tests. Discuss with your health care provider testing for HBV and screening for other STBBI. It is possible to have more than 1 STBBI at the same time. You can get more information on STBBI testing.

If you are pregnant, you can pass the Hepatitis B virus (HBV) to the baby during childbirth, so it is important to discuss screening for HBV and other STBBI with your health care provider.

Other tests, such as a liver function test, can show if any damage has been done to the liver.

If you have hepatitis B, you should notify anyone who may have been exposed to your blood (including household members, sexual partners and drug-use partners), so that they can be tested and offered the HBV vaccine as a means to prevent acquisition.

If you have questions or want to be tested for HBV and/or other sexually transmitted infections (STI), you can contact your:

  • health care provider
  • sexual health clinic
  • local public health unit

Treating Hepatitis B

There is no specific treatment for acute hepatitis B. Antiviral drugs can be used to treat some chronic cases of hepatitis B infection.

Discuss treatment options with your health care provider.

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