What is Hepatitis B?
The Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a viral infection of the liver. It follows a variable course, which means that different patients have different symptoms and treatment needs. Hepatitis B can cause an acute illness that often resolves itself quickly without causing long-term liver damage.
In around one in five cases in Ireland, it can result in a chronic illness that lasts over six months, with symptoms that come and go. In 15-40% of people with chronic infection, they may develop: cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure develop. In these cases, an untreated infection may be fatal.
Did you know? …
Most acute cases of Hepatitis B in Ireland are sexually acquired.
How can I catch it?
Hepatitis B is usually transmitted through contact with infected blood or body fluids. It can be sexually transmitted by both men and women. Only a tiny amount of blood is needed to transmit the virus because it is so infectious. The virus may also be present in saliva, vaginal secretions, breast milk and other bodily fluids. In Ireland, infection most commonly occurs through:
- Unprotected sexual intercourse
- Accidental injury with a contaminated needle (e.g. if needles used for tattooing, body piercing or acupuncture are contaminated)
- Needle stick injuries to healthcare workers
- Sharing contaminated needles (drugs users)
- Sharing razors.
What are the signs and symptoms?
There are often no symptoms with Hepatitis B which is why it is important to get checked regularly. Symptoms, if they occur, can include:
- Feeling tired
- Passing darker urine than usual
How can I test for Hepatitis B?
You can test for Hepatitis B either on its own or as part of the Better2Know Hepatitis Screen or Full Screen. A small blood sample is needed. The same blood sample can also be used for other STI tests you may want to test for.
Results are normally available the same day that the sample is received in the testing laboratory. Some Better2Know clinics in Ireland have Instant Hepatitis B testing available which gives you a result in around 20 minutes.
If left untreated, what are the health risks?
If left undetected and untreated, the Hepatitis B virus can weaken your immune system and mean that you are more at risk of contracting HIV and other STIs through unprotected sexual intercourse. It can also cause chronic inflammation of the liver and may lead to liver cancer.
If you are a pregnant woman, there is a risk of transmitting the virus to your baby. This can be minimised, and your midwife will be able to help you.
What if I test positive for Hepatitis B?
Most people who test positive for Hepatitis B will find that their immune system will fight off the virus on its own, thus specific treatment is not required. However, careful monitoring of the infection is always recommended to check whether chronic disease develops. It is important to understand the risk of passing the infection on.
If you test positive for Hepatitis B, your Better2Know doctor will advise you further. You may need to see a specialist who will carry out further tests to see the effect the virus is having on your body. The specialist will be able to help you decide on the best treatment option for you.
Regardless of whether the infection is producing symptoms or not, you are advised to avoid alcohol, get plenty of rest and maintain a healthy diet.
If the infection lasts more than six months, it becomes a chronic infection as the virus is continuing to actively reproduce in the body. You may need specific treatment to reduce the risk of permanent liver damage (cirrhosis) and liver cancer. Your doctor should refer you to a specialist in liver disease (hepatologist) and/or general digestive diseases (gastroenterologist).
If treatment is required, it is usually a prescribed anti-viral medication. Regular injections may be given which help to boost the immune system to fight the infection. The course can last up to six months, during which time you will receive regular support and monitoring. This should clear the virus from your body so you can then continue to lead your normal life.
Can I get a Hepatitis B vaccine?
An effective vaccination is available from Better2Know to protect against the infection. Family and other household members of an infected person should be vaccinated. Healthcare workers and volunteers, medical employees, police and emergency services personnel, and anyone who is likely to come into contact with infected blood through their job should also be vaccinated. For more information, see our vaccines page.
Book your Hepatitis B test
Better2Know is the world’s largest private provider of sexual health testing services. We will arrange a confidential appointment at a clinic near you with fast and accurate results for your peace of mind. Book online or call our Sexual Health Advisors now.