Page content: What is hepatitis? | What are the symptoms of hepatitis B? | What happens if you have long-term hepatitis B? | How is hepatitis B spread? | How can I avoid becoming infected with hepatitis B? | Is there a test for hepatitis B? | Can I be immunised against hepatitis B? | Who should be immunised? | Does the vaccine have side effects? | How effective is the vaccine? | What should I do if I think I have just been exposed to hepatitis B? | Is there a treatment for hepatitis B? | What should I do if I already have hepatitis B? | Further information | In your language
Hepatitis is the name for several different illnesses which all cause an inflamed (swollen or painful) liver. The liver is a vital part of the body. If it does not function properly, it can cause serious illness and sometimes death.
Drinking alcohol in large quantities or taking drugs or medication can cause hepatitis. It can also be caused by certain viruses. The different types of virus are known by different letters - A, B, C, D and E - so the different forms of the disease are called 'hepatitis A', 'hepatitis B' and so on. Sometimes people shorten the name, and say 'hep A' or 'hep B'.
These viruses are spread in different ways, so the ways to prevent people catching the disease are different too.
See information about other types of hepatitis:
Some people who are infected with hepatitis B do not become very ill. Some do not become sick at all. Children are less likely to have symptoms than adults even when they are infected.
In more severe cases, hepatitis B can cause:
Normally these symptoms disappear in a few weeks, but even when the person feels much better he or she may still be infected with the hepatitis B virus and remain infectious.
Most adults who catch hepatitis B recover completely and do not get the disease again. But a few people become very ill, and some even die.
People who become infected with the hepatitis B virus may develop a long-term hepatitis B infection, which occurs when the virus stays in their body for their entire life.
These individuals often have no symptoms, but may eventually suffer illnesses such as chronic liver disease or liver cancer. Even while they seem in good health, they can still infect other people.
Babies and children who are infected are more likely than adults to develop long-term hepatitis B. This occurs more commonly in some population groups and consequently they have higher rates of long term hepatitis B. These population groups include people from China, South East Asia, the Pacific Islands, sub-Saharan Africa and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Hepatitis B is a blood-borne virus, which can be sexually transmitted.
In those with an unresolved infection, the virus can be found in the blood (or serum) and to a lesser degree in their body fluids such as semen or saliva.
Transmission of the virus may occur following exposure of non-intact skin or mucous membranes to infected blood or, less efficiently, after exposure to infected body fluids.
The hepatitis B virus is present in the blood of an infected person. If infected blood enters another person's blood stream, that person may become infected.
The disease can be spread by:
People who get blood transfusions do not run the risk of hepatitis B infection because blood donations are screened for the virus.
The hepatitis B virus can be spread if people have unprotected sexual intercourse, especially if there is blood present.
Mother to Baby
Mothers who have long-term hepatitis B sometimes pass the virus to their children. Some babies are infected in the womb or during birth. However, most infection occurs shortly after birth, so if the newborn baby is quickly immunised, he or she can be protected from the disease.
Everyone can take simple steps to protect themselves.
Yes, there are different blood tests that can be performed to determine if you are or have been infected with hepatitis B.
It is important to remember that there is a period of time when a person may be infected with hepatitis B but the usual testing does not detect it. It can take up to six months for the blood tests to confirm infection and follow-up testing may be required.
There are also other tests that can assess liver damage or the likelihood of future liver damage from hepatitis B. The interpretation of these tests can be complicated and specialist advice is needed so consult your doctor.
Yes. There is a good vaccine available, and immunisation is the most effective way to protect against hepatitis B infection.
For adults to obtain maximum protection you must receive three doses of the vaccine. The second dose is given one month after the first dose, and the third dose is given five months after that.
Remember the hepatitis B vaccine only protects against hepatitis B – it does not protect people from other hepatitis viruses.
Immunisation recommended for everyone and especially if you:
Immunisation is also recommended and is free for:
To be immunised, contact your doctor or local council.
Reactions to the vaccine are uncommon, but some people do suffer side effects soon after immunisation. These include fever, soreness where the injection was given, nausea, and joint pain.
The adult course of three doses gives protection to about 95 per cent of people. Once you have had the three doses, you can have a blood test to see if you are protected.
Being immunised against hepatitis B does not protect you against HIV, hepatitis C or other diseases spread through blood or body fluids. It is important that you take precautions to ensure that you are not exposed to these.
See a doctor immediately. If you have been exposed recently, your doctor can give you treatment which in some instances, greatly reduces the risk of you becoming infected with hepatitis B.
Treatment is available and some treatments are covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
People with long-term hepatitis B may require treatment. The aim of the treatment is to suppress replication of the virus and reduce liver damage.
The current treatments available include interferons and antiviral medications. For more information on treatment, consult your doctor.
About 95 per cent of adults who become infected with hepatitis B will clear the infection by themselves and require no ongoing treatment.
If you have long-term hepatitis B you should:
If you have hepatitis B you should not:
Although there is no legal obligation to do so, you may wish to discuss your condition with your health care provider, for example, doctor, dentist, allied health or complementary health providers.
Language assistance may be gained through the TIS, the Translating and Interpreting Service, for the cost of a local call, on 131 450.
This information is also available as a PDF in the following languages: Chinese, Dari, Pashtu, Vietnamese.
See In your language
Last updated: 4 December, 2007
This web site is managed and authorised by Communicable Disease Control, Public Health Branch, Rural & Regional Health & Aged Care Services Division of the Victorian State Government, Department of Human Services, Australia