What is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B, sometimes called hep B or HBV, is a virus carried in the blood and body fluids which infects and damages the liver and is the most widespread form of hepatitis worldwide.
In the UK, approximately one in 350 people are thought to be chronically infected with hepatitis B. In some inner-city areas, with a high percentage of people from parts of the world where the virus is common, as many as one in 60 pregnant women may be infected.
How is Hepatitis B passed on?
Hepatitis B is known as a ‘blood-borne virus’ (BBV) and can be spread by blood to blood contact. However, it is also present in other body fluids which can be a source of infection, particularly if they have become contaminated with blood. Even a tiny amount of blood from someone who has the virus can pass on the infection if it gets into your bloodstream, through an open wound, a cut or scratch, or from a contaminated needle. Hepatitis B is very infectious, 50 – 100 times more infectious than HIV. The virus is able to survive outside the body for at least a week which means objects and surfaces contaminated with dried blood also can pose a risk.
However, there is a simple test to find out whether you have the virus and an effective vaccine is available to protect you from it.
What are the symptoms?
Some people may only have a mild illness and feel they are not ill enough to see a doctor. There are many general symptoms, some of which may be confused with flu.
A few people develop a serious illness and need to be looked after in hospital. More severe symptoms may include:
- pale bowel motions
- dark urine
- jaundice (a condition in which the whites of the eyes go yellow and in more severe cases the skin also turns yellow)
People with the acute phase of hepatitis B, do not require treatment. For the majority of people, the symptoms resolve and the person can ‘clear’ the infection, usually within six months, meaning they are no longer infectious; their blood will always show the hepatitis B antibodies but they should never be infected again (they become ‘immune’).
Long term infection is chronic hepatitis B which often requires treatment to stop or reduce the activity of the virus from damaging the liver, by limiting the replication (reproduction) of the virus. Not everyone will require treatment straight away. If you have low levels of the virus in your blood (a low viral load) and there is little sign of liver damage, it is likely that regular monitoring will be recommended and treatment started only if there are signs of disease progression.
Looking after yourself
If you have hepatitis B, you should receive an annual flu vaccine and a one-off pneumococcal vaccine as, it is likely your immune system will be weakened putting you at a greater risk of developing serious complications of flu, such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
There is no special diet for people with hepatitis B, however, eating a good, balanced diet is one of the most important things you can do to keep yourself well.
Looking after others
If you are diagnosed with hepatitis B you will need to inform close family members, such as your partner or children, so that they can consult a doctor to be tested and vaccinated against the virus.
If you are having any other medical treatment, visiting the dentist, having a tattoo, body piercing or acupuncture; you must let the practitioner know that you have hepatitis B so they can take precautions to protect themselves and others.
You have no legal obligation to inform your employer. However, you do have a legal duty to ensure your own health and safety and that of others while at work. The type of work that you do will influence the level of risk to others. Working with your employer means you can prevent others being infected. If you do decide to tell your employer they are obliged to keep this information confidential and cannot pass it on without your consent.
Download: Hepatitis B HEB/07/12.PDF
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Last Updated July 2012
Professor Graham Foster, Professor of Hepatology, Barts & The London School of Medicine & Dentistry, London: Ms Louise Campbell, Senior Nurse Liver Unit, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, St Mary’s Hospital, London.
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