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person with yellow eyes

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B (Hep B) is an infection of the liver, caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV).

What are the symptoms of hep B?

person with yellow eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

Many people do not show any symptoms, but can still spread the germs to others without knowing it.  Infants and young children usually do not show any symptoms.  Symptoms can take about 2 to 6 months after the germs enter your body to show.  By this time, the virus may have already caused damage to your liver.  A small number of people can die after being infected.  This is why it is important to take steps to prevent getting hep B and get tested if you may have been exposed.

How does hep B spread?

Hep B spreads easily through contact of your blood or mucous membranes with the blood or body fluids (such as saliva, semen, and vaginal fluid) of someone with hep B infection.  Common ways to spread the infection include:

  • Having unprotected oral, vaginal, and/or anal sex with an infected partner.
  • From mother to baby during childbirth.
  • Sharing used needles or other drug equipment for injecting or inhaling drugs.
  • Using contaminated medical, surgical, or dental equipment, such as insulin pens or tattoo needles.
  • Being exposed by getting pricked by a contaminated needle or sharp at a workplace.
  • Sharing personal items, such as toothbrushes or razors.

Until your health care provider tells you that you have cleared the germs from your body, you can spread it to others.  People living or travelling to countries where it is common are at a higher risk of getting hep B.

What are the complications of hep B?

Most adults will recover within 6 months (known as acute hepatitis B infection).  However, some will develop chronic infection, where the virus remains in their body for life (known as hepatitis B carriers).  The younger a person is, the more likely they are to be chronically infected.  People who have chronic hepatitis B can develop serious liver problems, such as liver scarring (cirrhosis) and cancer.

How do I get tested for hep B?

A simple blood test is collected by a health care provider to test for hep B.  If it is positive for hep B infection, you will need additional blood tests to see if you have recovered from the infection.

How is hep B treated?

If you have these symptoms, see a health care provider as soon as possible.  Tell your health care provider about any type of unprotected sex (oral, vaginal, or rectal) and if you or your partners have been travelling. 

  • Acute hep B:  Treatment includes supportive care for symptoms and preventing complications and further spread of the germs.  After recovering from a hep B infection, you are protected from future infections if exposed to the germs later in life.
  • Chronic hep B carriers:  Treatment include supportive care for symptoms, and monitoring of your liver with blood tests.  Antiviral medications (medications that fight against viruses) are not yet available, but are being studied to see if and how well they work.

What do I do if I have hep B?

Encourage all those who may have been exposed to your blood or bodily fluids (e.g., sexual partners, people you live with) to get a test for hepatitis and to get their hepatitis B immunizations if the tests are negative.  The hepatitis B vaccine is free for these contacts.  The Health Unit can help you notify your partners, while keeping your identity confidential.

If you have not yet recovered from acute hep B or have chronic hep B, make sure to:

  • Not have sex until sexual partners have been tested and/or immunized.  Practice safer sex and use barrier protection, such as condoms.
  • Tell your doctor, dentist and other health care providers, about the infection so they can take precautions.
  • Not share personal items that may contain blood, such as toothbrushes, razors, or nail clippers.
  • Not donate blood, semen, or tissues.
  • Not share drug equipment, such as needles or pipes, if you use drugs.   Visit a local needle syringe program to get new needles, syringes, and other equipment.
  • Cover all cuts and sores.  Avoid preparing food and swimming in public pools, if bleeding.
  • Clean up blood spills with diluted household bleach (9 parts water to 1 part bleach).  Leave the bleach solution on the surface for 10 minutes before wiping it away.  If others are cleaning up blood spills, make sure they wear protective gloves and wash their hands well after removing the gloves.
  • Get tested for other sexually transmitted and bloodborne infections (STBBIs), such as HIV and hepatitis C.  Your health care provider may advise you to get the hepatitis A vaccine.
  • Take care of yourself by eating a balanced diet, getting enough rest and exercise, and following up with your health care provider as needed.  Avoid drinking alcohol to protect your liver.

How do I prevent hep B?

person receiving a shot

The best way to prevent hep B is to make sure you and your child are up-to-date with all of your vaccinations.  The two- to three-dose hepatitis B vaccine series are free as part of the Ontario’s publicly funded program.  Vaccines help protect you from serious illness.

Other ways to prevent infection include:

  • Practicing safer sex, such as:
    • Abstinence (not taking part in any types of sex),
    • Mutual monogamy (both partners only have sex with each other and have been tested for STBBIs, and
    • Using latex and polyurethane male and female condoms and dental dams.  Condoms are available for free at the Health Unit.
    • Not sharing sex toys or thoroughly washing them with disinfectants between use
  • Getting tested for STBBIs, if you had unprotected sex and/or are not sure if you or your partners have a STBBI.
  • Not sharing personal items or drug equipment.

For more information contact the Health Unit or speak to your health care provider.

References:

Government of Canada. (2014). Primary care management of hepatitis B – Quick reference (HBV-QR). Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/reports-publications/primary-care-management-hepatitis-b-quick-reference.html#sec9.

Heymann, D.L. (Ed.). (2015). Control of communicable diseases manual (20th ed.). Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.

Ontario. Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. (2019). Infectious diseases protocol, Appendix A: Disease-specific chapters, Chapter: Hepatitis B. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

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