What you need to know about hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is an infection caused by a virus that can be transmitted during sex, by sharing equipment to use drugs and through household contact with someone who has hepatitis B. The virus infects the liver. Most people recover from the infection on their own, while some develop a permanent (chronic) infection. Treatment can help with symptoms and keep a chronic infection under control. There are many ways to lower the chance of getting or passing on hepatitis B, including getting vaccinated.

The words we use here – CATIE is committed to using language that is relevant to everyone. People use different terms to describe their bodies. This text uses medical terms, such as vagina and penis, to describe genitals. Other people may use other terms, such as private parts or dick or front hole. CATIE acknowledges and respects that people use words that they are most comfortable with.

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis B virus. A person with hepatitis B can pass it on to another person during sex, when sharing equipment to use drugs and through household contact with someone living with hepatitis B.

Many people with hepatitis B have no symptoms, so they don’t know they have an infection. When symptoms do occur, they can take 2 to 3 months to appear. Common symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite, nausea and/or vomiting
  • joint and/or abdominal discomfort or pain
  • yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • rash
  • dark urine (pee)

Most adults will recover from an acute hepatitis B infection without treatment. If the virus has been in the blood for more than 6 months, it is considered a permanent (or chronic) hepatitis B infection. About 15 to 40% of individuals develop chronic hepatitis B. Chronic hepatitis B, if left untreated, can cause serious liver injury and increase the chance of liver cancer.

Could I get hepatitis B?

In Canada, hepatitis B is most commonly passed on during sex without a condom; this includes vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse. Anyone who is sexually active, including people who experience sexual violence, can get hepatitis B this way.

Hepatitis B can also be passed on through:

  • sharing equipment to use drugs
  • sharing sex toys or during a hand job or fingering

Because the virus can survive outside the body for several days, hepatitis B can also be passed:

  • between household members who share toothbrushes, razors or nail files
  • via improperly sterilized tools for tattooing, body piercing, acupuncture or electrolysis
  • among health professionals through improper handling of medical and dental equipment

Hepatitis B and HIV

For people with HIV, untreated chronic hepatitis B infection may result in serious liver-related problems. Talk to your doctor to be sure that you are getting treatment for both HIV and hepatitis B.

Because HIV and hepatitis B share the same transmission routes, someone with hepatitis B is at greater risk of getting HIV. Co-infection with HIV and hepatitis B does not affect the progression of HIV or HIV treatment.

What can I do?

Prevent infection

The most effective way to prevent hepatitis B is to get the vaccine, especially for individuals with HIV.

To lower the chance of getting or passing on hepatitis B during sex:

  • use a condom during vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse
  • use condoms on sex toys and condoms or oral dams for oral sex

The chance of passing hepatitis B in other ways can be lowered by:

  • not sharing drug equipment, including syringes, needles, cookers, filters, water, swabs, pipes and straws
  • not sharing personal items that have come into contact with bodily fluids or blood, such as toothbrushes, dental floss, razors, nail clippers, glucometers, needles, bandages and feminine hygiene products

Get tested

The only way to know for sure whether or not you have hepatitis B is to get tested. A doctor or nurse can do the test. A simple blood test will reveal if you currently have hepatitis B, if you have had hepatitis B in the past or if you have already received the vaccine. 

It is a good idea to get tested for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, when you get tested for hepatitis B. Talk to your healthcare provider about how often you should test for STIs.

If you are diagnosed with hepatitis B, a public health nurse will talk to you about informing your sex partners, as well as others who may have been in contact with your blood or bodily fluids (people you live with or health care professionals who have cared for you), that they might have been exposed to hepatitis B and encouraging them to get tested. Your identity will not be revealed.

Get treated

Acute hepatitis B infections are not usually treated with medication. Once the acute infection clears, you have immunity from getting hepatitis B again.

Chronic hepatitis B infection is treated with antiviral medications. These medications help to put the disease into remission and greatly lower the chance of liver cancer.

Getting the hepatitis B vaccine gives you immunity, which will prevent you from getting hepatitis B in the future.

If you have chronic hepatitis B, there are many things you can do to take care of your liver. Visit www.catie.ca for info on taking care of your liver.

Credits

This information sheet was developed in partnership with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN).

Resource

Hepatitis B CATIE fact sheet