What is hepatitis B & how do you contract it?
Hepatitis B is a virus that spreads through blood and body fluids causing an infection of the liver.
In the UK, hepatitis B is fairly uncommon but those with a higher risk include people from or travelling to high risk countries, people who inject illicit drugs and people who have unprotected sex with multiple sexual partners.
The virus is present in the blood and body fluid of someone with the infection. Here are the ways it can spread:
• From mother to child during pregnancy – particularly in countries where the infection is common
• Child to child in countries where the infection is common
• Having unprotected sex with someone who is infected
• Sharing drug equipment such as needles, spoons and filters
• Tattoos, body piercings, medical or dental treatment where equipment isn’t sterilised
• Sharing toothbrushes or razors with someone who’s infected
Signs & symptoms
Any symptoms will develop after being exposed to the virus and usually last for two to three months, however hepatitis B symptoms aren’t always experienced. It’s possible for some adults to fight off the virus without them knowing they've had it.
• Flu-like symptoms (tiredness, fever, general aches and pains)
• Loss of appetite
• Nausea or vomiting
• Abdominal pain
• Yellowing of skin and eyes
Symptoms of acute hepatitis B in adults usually subside within one to three months. However, sometimes the virus can take longer to pass, lasting for six months or more and becomes classed as chronic hepatitis B.
If you’ve potentially been exposed to hepatitis B, you have any symptoms or you’re at a high risk of coming into contact with the virus, you should seek medical advice from your GP.
Treatment depends on how long you’ve had the infection. Emergency treatment can help stop people contracting the infection if they have been exposed to the virus for only a few days. Acute hepatitis B is when the infection has been present for a few weeks or months. Treatment may be needed to relieve the symptoms. Chronic hepatitis B is when the infection has been present for more than six months; medications may be offered to control the virus and reduce the risk of liver damage. Chronic hepatitis B needs to be regularly monitored and usually requires long-term or lifelong treatment.
Hepatitis B is best prevented via administration of the hepatitis B vaccine. There are other steps you can take to lower your risk of infection, including using condoms during sex.
If you're travelling and could be at risk of catching hepatitis B, a course of vaccinations should be considered to help protect you. Individuals at high risk include:
• Travellers to a high risk area (sub-Saharan Africa, East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands)
• People adopting or fostering children from high risk areas
• People who inject drugs, or have a sexual partner who does
• Someone who frequently changes sexual partners
• Men who have sex with men
• Sex workers
• People working in areas with a risk of coming into contact with blood or body fluids (nurses, prison staff, doctors, dentists, laboratory staff)
• People receiving regular blood or blood products, and their carers
How long does the hepatitis B vaccination last?
A course of vaccinations should provide lifelong protection.
How can we help protect your employees against Hepatitis B?
Anyone working in healthcare, laboratories, care homes, waste disposal, police, fire or rescue services as well as prison and immigration centres, are at an increased risk of contracting Hepatitis B. The Hepatitis B vaccination is a course of three injections over six months which helps protect against the virus.
An accelerated course is also available given over 2 months with a fourth dose at 12 months if required.
Is a blood test needed after the vaccination?
When the vaccination course is complete, an immunity blood test is needed to check whether you or your employees are now protected against the virus. This blood test should be taken one to four months after the last vaccination. Depending on the result, another dose of the vaccine may be required.