Hepatitis B is a contagious liver disease caused by a viral infection. While there are few cases in Canada, it remains very common in some parts of the world.
Symptoms appear 1 to 6 months (on average 3 months) after exposure to the virus. Most infected people will have no symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they may include the following:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pains
- Loss of appetite
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
- Dark urine
- Joint pain
Symptoms usually last anywhere from a few weeks to 6 months. The body is often able to eliminate the virus and develop lifelong immunity. However, in a minority of cases, the virus can't be fought off and leads to a lifelong infection known as chronic hepatitis B. Most people with chronic hepatitis B have no symptoms. This form of the disease is much more common in children than in adults.
Chronic hepatitis B increases the chances of developing liver disease and liver cancer.
Causes and triggers
Hepatitis B is a disease caused by the hepatitis B virus. The virus is transmitted through body fluids (e.g., blood, semen, vaginal secretions, saliva). A person can get hepatitis B from direct contact with the body fluids of an infected person.
Common causes of transmission include the following:
- Unprotected sex (genital, oral, or anal)
- Sharing of sex toys
- Sharing of needles or syringes to inject drugs
- Tattoos or piercings done with non-sterile equipment
- Bite injuries
- Sharing of toothbrushes or razors
- Direct contact with an open wound
- Pregnancy or childbirth
A person with hepatitis B can spread the disease as long as the virus is present in their blood. They're contagious a few weeks before symptoms appear and for up to 6 months afterward. People with chronic hepatitis B are contagious all their lives, even if they don't have symptoms.
Some people are at higher risk of being infected with the hepatitis B virus:
- Injection drug users
- People who have multiple sexual partners
- People who live with an infected person
- Children whose mothers were infected during pregnancy
There is no cure for hepatitis B. Most of the time, the infection heals on its own. Infected individuals should get lots of rest, stay hydrated, and eat well. In cases of lifelong infection, some medications can help prevent complications.
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is to get vaccinated. The following measures can also help prevent infection:
- Use a condom during sexual intercourse
- Use sterile syringes or needles
- Avoid sharing toothbrushes and razors
A blood test can detect hepatitis B.
When should I see a health care professional?
Speak with your health care provider in the following cases:
- You have symptoms of hepatitis B
- You think you may have been exposed to hepatitis B
- You've used a non-sterile needle or syringe
- You're planning a trip and you haven't been vaccinated against hepatitis B
You should also speak to a health care professional if you've received medical care in another country.